Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:05 pm (KSA) 09:05 am (GMT)

Olmert visits US under fire over settlements

Scandal-hit Olmert is under pressure to step down (File)
Scandal-hit Olmert is under pressure to step down (File)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived in Washington on Monday weakened by calls to resign over corruption allegations and facing U.S. criticism of his government's continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

The three-day visit may offer the embattled premier a brief respite from the turmoil at home where he has faced calls to step down even from key government allies over suspicions he unlawfully obtained vast sums of money from a U.S. financier.

But the trip may well be his last visit as premier to Israel's staunchest ally.

Olmert, 62, suffered two massive blows in quick succession last week when key coalition ally Defense Minister Ehud Barak demanded he quit and the cabinet number two, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, challenged his party leadership.

Olmert's working visit is seen by many as his farewell from U.S. President George W. Bush, whose hopes of seeing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal this year appear to be fading fast.

Abbas meeting

The Israeli premier held a new meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas just hours before his departure for Washington but it was overshadowed by Palestinian anger at his government's plans to build a further 884 homes in two Jewish settlements in Arab east Jerusalem.

Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erakat said the plans were threatening U.S. hopes of the two sides reaching a peace deal by the end of the year.

"We want to reach a peace agreement before the end of 2008 but there is this continuing Israeli contradiction between pursuing the peace process and imposing facts on the ground," he said.

Israel put a brave face on the progress of the peace talks which have achieved few visible results since their resumption seven months ago.

"I can say unequivocally that there was progress reached at this meeting today," Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev told journalists after the two-hour meeting with Abbas.

But Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since ousting troops loyal to the Palestinian president last June, called the talks "a farce" and accused Abbas of "lending legitimacy" to the Israeli settlements by meeting Olmert one day after the new projects were announced.

World condemnation

Even the White House criticized the settlement expansion plans.

Spokeswoman Dana Perino said "we don't believe that any more settlements should be built" because "it exacerbates the tensions when it comes to the negotiations with the Palestinians."

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Israel's plans were both "contrary to international law and to its commitments" under the peace process.

In a speech later in the day marking the 41st anniversary of Israel's capture of east Jerusalem, Olmert further courted Palestinian anger by insisting that "historic and holy Jerusalem" would remain for ever Israeli.

"Israeli sovereignty over historic and holy Jerusalem will last for eternity. Jerusalem constitutes the heart of the Jewish people," he said.

The Palestinians insist that any peace deal must be based on the 1967 borders and demand east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.

Syrian file

Other than the Palestinian track, Olmert will brief Bush on Israel's resumption of peace talks with Syria after an eight-year freeze, indirectly through Turkish mediators.

The move raised eyebrows in the U.S. administration, which has sought to isolate Syria for what Washington sees as its meddling in Lebanese affairs and its support for militants in Iraq.

"It is Israel's decision to engage in talks with Syria. We wish them success if they could lead to significant change... We're not involved in them in any way," a U.S. official said.

Olmert was also expected to discuss a military aid package that Bush offered during his visit to Israel in May.

The package, aimed at countering Iran, includes a missile early warning system and advanced stealth fighter jets, the U.S. official said. It comes on top of a 30-billion-dollar defense package already pledged over the next 10 years.

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