Middle East

Olmert Addresses U.S. Pro-Israel Lobbyists

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Under fire at home and facing corruption charges, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is visiting Washington, D.C. He was honored at a dinner Tuesday by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. On Wednesday, he meets with President Bush.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Israel's prime minister is trying to keep up an appearance of business as usual on his visit to Washington, D.C., despite efforts back home to push him out of office. Ehud Olmert meets President Bush this afternoon in the Oval Office. White House officials say they expect the two leaders and friends will talk about the Mid East peace process, something they're hoping will move forward, even in the midst of Olmert's domestic troubles.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be just barely holding onto power, but you would hardly know it last night when he addressed the influential Pro-Israel Lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Unidentified Man: The prime minister of the state of Israel, Ehud Olmert.

(Soundbite of music)

KELEMEN: With Hollywood-sounding music piped into the Washington Convention Center, Olmert walked confidently on the stage, smiling and waving to thousands of APEC supporters and many members of Congress. Olmert's speech focused on the big issues: Israel's security, peace talks, and the need to be tough on Iran.

(Soundbite of audio)

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neither should any other country in the free world.

KELEMEN: He got a standing ovation for that line, but not much of a response when he talked about the peace talks with the Palestinians or a newly revived track with the Syrians. Olmert only briefly alluded to the corruption scandal that's plaguing him, an issue many of the APEC delegates discussed over dinner.

Prime Minister OLMERT: Given the recent political developments in Israel, of which I'm sure you're all aware, I hesitated as to whether it was the right time and the right thing to leave everything behind and meet with you today. I promise you, I didn't hesitate for too long.

KELEMEN: Members of his government have been calling on him to step down in the face of bribery allegations. Last week, an American businessman testified that he gave Olmert $150,000 over 15 years, all in envelopes stuffed with cash. Olmert has described the payments as legitimate campaign contributions.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says she doesn't expect President Bush to bring up the scandal in their meeting today. She says Mr. Bush is still focused on his goal of getting a peace deal this year.

Ms. DANA PERINO (Spokeswoman, White House): He believes that the Israelis as a whole are now committed and understand that in order for them to live in peace and security that there has to be a state that the Palestinians can call their own. And he thinks that that is bigger than any one person, and that we're going to continue to work on it despite what may or may not be happening in Israeli political circles.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who's been trying to nurture the talks, was sounding a little less optimistic when she spoke yesterday to APEC.

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Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): We still believe that we have a chance to reach an agreement on the basic contours of a peaceful Palestinian state. I know that this is ambitious, but if we can pursue this goal by the end of the year, it will be an historic breakthrough for people who believe in peace. The goal itself, though, will endure beyond the current U.S. leadership.

KELEMEN: She says she's hoping the Bush administration's approach the region will endure as well. Like Olmert, she saved her toughest words for Iran and its suspect nuclear program, which has been a dominant theme of the APEC conference.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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