Woes at home, Israel's Olmert travels to US

Ehud Olmert is heading to Washington for what could be his last trip there as Israel's prime minister.

With a corruption scandal sending his approval ratings into free-fall and calls for his dismissal growing, a warm handshake from President Bush and applause from a pro-Israel lobbying group will be a welcome respite, the AP reported.

But as Olmert's troubles mount, Bush's vision of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by year's end seems increasingly unlikely.

Olmert arrives Tuesday for a three-day stay. He is scheduled to visit the White House, address the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and meet Bush administration officials and lawmakers.

Among the items on the agenda will be Iran's nuclear program and the Gaza Strip, where Hamas took control a year ago.

Israeli political analyst Hanan Crystal said a photo op with Bush won't help Olmert much. "What he can do on this visit is see his friends in Washington, and he has quite a few, and say goodbye," Crystal said.

Olmert leaves Israel at the height of the worst crisis of his two years as 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, before he was prime minister, in part to help fund luxury goods and hotels.

Olmert, who has weathered four previous police investigations since taking office, has said he will step down if indicted. But that has not helped to ward off calls for his ouster.

Last week, his key coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, told him to temporarily or permanently step aside.

If Olmert doesn't, he said, 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 said elections this year are "entirely possible."

The crisis has set off political jostling in Olmert's Kadima Party, where candidates to replace him are preparing for primaries. His top Kadima rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, last week suggested he should step down.

Olmert has tried to project a business-as-usual appearance. On Monday, he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the status of peace talks.

With Bush looking on, Olmert and Abbas relaunched peace talks last November after seven years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. The 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.

At Monday's summit, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders sparred over Israeli plans to build hundreds of homes in disputed east Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is home to Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.

The Palestinians claim the eastern sector as capital of a future independent state. Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area, claims all of Jerusalem as its capital.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas "launched a very strong protest" at Monday's meeting and denounced the planned construction as an obstacle to peace.

Olmert told Abbas that "Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem will stay in Israel's hands" under any final peace deal, said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.

Israel, meanwhile, has claimed the Palestinians are not doing enough to control militant groups. Israel says no peace deal can be carried out until Abbas regains control of Gaza.

The Israeli military regularly clashes with militants in Gaza who fire rockets into Israel. Israel has imposed an economic blockade of the territory, a policy supported by the Bush administration.

Gaza is expected to be on the agenda in Washington, along with Iran's nuclear program, officials said.

U.S. intelligence believes Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program, but Israel disagrees, and Olmert will press that case in his meetings with the Bush administration, according to Israeli defense officials.

In another measure aimed primarily at Iran, Israel is asking the U.S. for permission to hook up directly to a global satellite system that detects missile launches anywhere in the world, rather than receiving the information second hand from the U.S., officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the agenda for Olmert's discussions in the U.S. has not been made public.

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