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Ehud Olmert Heads to Washington for First White House Meeting


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on his way to Washington, where Tuesday he will hold his first meeting with President Bush at the White House. The future of the West Bank and the Iranian nuclear threat are topping the agenda.

Mr. Olmert is seeking President Bush's support for his plan for unilateral Israeli pullouts from large parts of the West Bank. American backing is vital, and the prime minister hopes to build on the legacy of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since a massive stroke in January. Zalman Shoval is a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

"It is very important for both sides to get to know each other, to establish a sort of relationship, hopefully, similar to the one, which exists between Sharon and Bush, although, that's a very difficult act to follow," said Zalman Shoval.

Mr. Olmert hopes to draw Israel's final borders by 2010 - part of his master plan to separate from the Palestinians. While Israel would relinquish much of the West Bank, it would also annex major settlement blocs, something that would not sit well with America's Arab allies.

The pullouts would be unilateral, because, with the Islamic militant group Hamas in power, Israel believes there is no Palestinian peace partner. Hamas seeks Israel's destruction.

Shoval says the United States prefers a negotiated agreement, but ...

"I think the Americans have no illusions that there's much of a chance to make progress in negotiations, certainly, as long as the Hamas is in the picture, and the Hamas is still in the picture," he said.

The other key issue on the agenda is the Iranian nuclear program. Israel wants tougher U.S. and European action to stop what it sees as an existential and global threat.

"The nuclear option in the hands of someone like the present Iranian regime, is a threat to the rest of the world, to Europe, to the Arab Middle East, to Israel, as well," said Zalman Shoval.

Israel has grown increasingly alarmed about Iran's nuclear program since October, when the Iranian president threatened to "wipe" the Jewish state "off the map."

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