IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Embattled Olmert hopes for respite on U.S. trip

/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, embattled politically at home, was assured a proper reception from President Bush and other U.S. officials in what could be his last trip to Washington as Israel's leader.

He planned to discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and the Iranian nuclear threat with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Bush and will address the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC during a three-day visit.

Israeli newspapers have reported that Olmert also hopes to acquire a sophisticated U.S. missile defense system, advanced radar and new warplanes.

But the visit is being overshadowed by Olmert's legal troubles at home, where a corruption investigation has decimated his popularity ratings and fueled growing calls for his dismissal.

The normally talkative Israeli leader did not emerge from his private quarters to speak to reporters during an overnight flight from Israel, arriving in Washington a couple of hours before dawn Tuesday.

He had afternoon meetings scheduled with AIPAC leaders and Rice and was to address the AIPAC convention in the evening. He sees Bush later in the week.

Plummeting popularity
The trip comes at the height of the worst crisis of Olmert's two-year term. Israeli prosecutors are looking into hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions that Olmert received from American donors in the years before he became prime minister.

Last week, the key witness in the case, American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky, said he gave Olmert cash-stuffed envelopes over 15 years, in part to help fund a penchant for luxury goods and five-star hotels. The testimony devastated Olmert's already compromised credibility and sent his popularity plummeting.

Olmert, who has weathered four previous police investigations since he took office, has said he will step down if indicted. But that has not helped ward off his political opponents.

Last week his key coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, issued him an ultimatum: Step aside or Barak's Labor Party will topple the government and bring about new elections, more than a year ahead of the scheduled March 2010 vote.

On Monday, Barak told Labor lawmakers that he has drawn up the necessary legislation to dissolve the parliament — a move that would likely win approval in the 120-seat house. Barak did not say when he would submit the bill for a vote, but said elections this year are "entirely possible."

Olmert, meanwhile, has tried to project a business-as-usual appearance, meeting Monday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the status of peace talks before heading to Washington.

With Bush looking on, Olmert and Abbas relaunched peace talks last November after seven years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. The two leaders have set a year-end target to reach a blueprint for peace before Bush leaves office.

But those talks appear to have made little progress. Olmert's woes and the increasing likelihood that Israel is heading for new elections make it unlikely that goal will be reached or that Bush and Olmert will still be around to see the results of the process they launched in Annapolis, Maryland.