WASHINGTON, (AFP) – President George W. Bush will host Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Monday for farewell talks where the outgoing leaders will take stock of their achievements marked by the failure to clinch a Mideast peace deal.
The meeting, branded by Israeli officials as “a chance to bid farewell from a close friend of Israel,” will also focus on international efforts to halt Iran’s controversial nuclear drive.
As Bush prepares to leave the White House on January 20 and with Olmert set to step down amid a corruption scandal after February elections, the two close allies were unlikely to make any major announcements.
Yet both lame-duck leaders wish to end their time in office with proof of some success in the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts which were launched at an international conference in Annapolis, Maryland last November.
The talks have made little apparent progress despite intensive meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and strong US backing, as all sides have acknowledged they would not meet their declared goal of reaching a peace treaty before Bush leaves office.
“Bush and Olmert will sum up the peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians,” Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said. It remained unclear if they will seek to draw up a document summarizing the latest round of talks.
And despite president-elect Barack Obama’s promise to continue backing the talks, prospects for peace remain at best unclear as Israel heads for elections and the Palestinians remain deeply divided between Western-backed president Mahmud Abbas and the Islamist Hamas movement.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with whom Olmert was set to meet on Monday morning, said on Sunday that the peace talks were “in pretty good shape.”
She blamed the failure to reach a deal “largely because of the political situation in Israel” following Olmert’s resignation.
Bush and Olmert were also expected to discuss ways to tackle Iran’s nuclear bid, which Israel and the US suspect is aimed at developing an atomic bomb, a claim denied by Tehran.
“We are hopeful for substantive meetings,” Regev said.
Olmert wants to clinch new commitments on Iran from his staunch ally before Obama, whose policy towards the Islamic republic has raised some concern in Israel, enters the White House, officials said.
“Olmert wants to tie loose ends with regards to promises the Bush administration has given Israel,” a government official said.
Olmert will press Bush and Congress to allow Israel to purchase dozens of F-35 stealth fighter jets, which would considerably boost the Israeli air force’s ability to carry out long-range strikes.
The Pentagon has announced that Israel had asked to buy up to 75 jets, but Congress has yet to give the 15 billion dollar (12 billion euro) deal a green light.
Over the past year, the United States has considerably increased its already tight defense ties with its ally, giving the Jewish state an unprecedented 10-year, 30 billion dollar defense aid commitment.
The aid comes amid growing US and international concern about Iran’s missile and nuclear programmes and statements by Iran’s leaders predicting that Israel is doomed to disappear.
Israel, the region’s sole if undeclared nuclear armed state, considers Iran its main strategic threat because of its nuclear program.
Olmert has repeatedly said Israel would prefer to use diplomatic and economic pressure to persuade Iran to abandon its programme, but he has refused to rule out a military strike.
Monday’s summit will also serve as an opportunity for both Bush and Olmert to reaffirm the close ties between the two allies that were considerably tightened under Bush’s administration.
“The prime minister wants to use the meeting as an opportunity to express his appreciation for President Bush’s friendship and support for Israel,” Regev said.
Following their one-on-one talks, Bush and Olmert will be joined by their wives for dinner.