Olmert heads to U S to gauge post-election policy

 
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TEL AVIV, Nov 12 (Reuters) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert begins a U S visit today, seeking from President George W Bush a post-election picture of U S policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran.

''It is the right time ... to exchange views with the president on what is expected in the coming two years (of his term),'' Olmert said before leaving Israel.

''The main subjects will be the situation in West Asia and the Iranian issue,'' he told reporters, referring to Tehran's nuclear programme which Israel and the United States fear could lead to the development of atomic weapons.

A mid-term U S election last week showing deep popular dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq has raised speculation in Israel that Bush could try to cap his two-term presidency with progress on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Olmert will meet Bush tomorrow. He left Israel overnight.

Gearing up for the trip, Olmert heaped praise on moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him ''upfront, decent and against terror'', in an apparent signal that he would be the focus of any new U S or Israeli peace efforts.

''The Palestinian issue is on the agenda. There is no way we can ignore it. We have to find the best partner,'' Olmert said in an interview with Newsweek magazine published over the weekend.

But any moves on the Palestinian front would likely require a remake of the government headed by Hamas, an Islamist group that has rejected demands by the United States and other peace brokers to change dramatically its position towards Israel.

The group, which won Palestinian elections in January and ousted Abbas's Fatah faction, advocates Israel's destruction.

Hamas and Abbas have been trying to form a unity government of technocrats they hope can ease Western sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Abbas said yesterday he hoped the unity cabinet would be in place by the month's end.

Israeli media reports said Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had discussed ways for Israel to grab the diplomatic initiative in the stalled peace process.

In the Newsweek interview, Olmert said the recent inclusion of a far-right politician into his cabinet would not alter his position toward the Palestinians.

''... You can read my lips. I'm ready for territorial compromises, and I haven't changed my mind,'' Olmert said.

Olmert's U S trip takes place with tensions high in Israel and the Palestinian territories after 19 civilians were killed by Israeli artillery fire on a Gaza town on Wednesday.

Olmert has expressed sorrow over the deaths in what he described as a technical error by artillery firing towards an orange grove where militants had launched rockets at Israel.

IRAN Olmert last met Bush in May during a Washington visit in which the prime minister told the U S Congress about Israel's fears that a nuclear Iran would pose a threat to its existence.

Iran, whose president has called for the Jewish state's destruction, says it intends to use its uranium enrichment programme for electricity generation.

Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons.

Olmert told Newsweek Iran needed to ''fear'' the consequences of not heeding international demands over its nuclear programme.

''I don't believe that Iran will accept such compromise unless they have good reason to fear the consequences of not reaching a compromise. In other words, Iran must start to fear''.

Asked if Israel would consider a military strike, Olmert said: ''I prefer not to discuss the Israeli options. Israel has many options.'' Last month Olmert said there would be a ''price to pay'' if Iran rejected every compromise. He did not elaborate.

Iran said today that its Revolutionary Guards will respond swiftly if Israel attacked the Islamic Republic.

''If Israel takes such a stupid step and attacks, the answer of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard will be rapid, firm and destructive and it will be given in a few seconds,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a news conference.

REUTERS AKJ BS1447

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