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Embattled Israeli leader to visit the US

Latest update : 2008-06-02

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose leadership has been undermined by recent allegations of corruption, is on his way to Washington in what the Israeli press has dubbed a "farewell tour." A.Young reports from Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM - Denying any wrongdoing in an investigation that was gathering speed, the embattled leader set off on a foreign visit to discuss issues at the heart of U.S.-Israeli relations and the Middle East conflict.

 

Richard Nixon landed in Israel in June, 1974 at the height of the Watergate scandal to a red-carpet welcome and trumpet fanfare that struck a note far different from the political discord he left back home.

 

Two months later, the U.S. president resigned.

 

Under pressure to quit over a corruption investigation, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embarks on Monday on what one Israeli columnist dubbed a "farewell tour", a three-day visit to Washington, where he will meet U.S. President George W. Bush.

 

For the Israeli leader, the trip will provide a brief opportunity to shift focus away from Olmert, the suspect, to Olmert the statesman.

 

Olmert, 62, has said he has done nothing wrong but has pledged to step down if charged. He said he has important business to discuss in Washington.

 

"I believe that my fellow ministers, who are working with me on Israel's most strategic and crucial issues, agree this trip is extremely important, especially with regard to matters that are at the root of Israel's existence," Olmert said on Sunday.

 

He and Bush last held talks just two weeks ago, during the president's visit to Israel to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

 

An invitation to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, opened the way for Olmert's trip.

 

It could also be a final chance for Olmert and Bush to meet face-to-face and try to tie up some loose ends.

 

Among issues certain to be on their agenda: Iran's nuclear programme, Palestinian statehood talks that Bush hopes can achieve a deal before he leaves office -- but which the Israeli political turmoil could derail -- and Israel-Gaza violence.

 

Olmert also plans to meet Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. All three are scheduled to address the AIPAC conference.

 

 

 

"HONEST MAN"

 

 White House spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledged on Thursday the investigation against Olmert does take some attention away from Bush's goal to broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis in the next seven months.

 

In remarks to reporters, she appeared to suggest Bush would steer clear of commenting on the Israeli investigation, saying, "the president believes that Israeli politics is something the Israelis are going to have to deal with".

 

On the eve of his Jerusalem visit last month, Bush, in his first reference to the Israeli scandal, pointedly called Olmert "an honest man".

 

Since that trip, a Jerusalem court has heard testimony from a U.S. businessman who said he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash-stuffed envelopes and loans before the veteran politician became prime minister in 2006.

 

Olmert has described money from New York-based fund-raiser Morris Talansky as legitimate contributions to his election campaigns. His lawyers have yet to cross-examine Talansky, 75.

 

After the testimony, Defence Minister Ehud Barak's left-leaning Labour Party, Olmert's main coalition partner, called on him to step aside and threatened to force an early general election, without setting a firm deadline.

 

Of more immediate concern to Olmert are efforts by rivals, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in his Kadima party to pursue an internal leadership ballot to pick his replacement.

 

Kadima sources said Olmert wants Kadima to put off any such vote for months, hoping to ride out the police investigation.

Date created : 2008-06-02

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