JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began a five-day trip to the United States on Sunday, armed with an agenda focusing on the Iranian nuclear threat and Israel's relations with the Palestinians.
On the flight over, Olmert repeated his view that Iran will not scale back its nuclear ambitions unless it fears the consequences of its intransigence, a spokeswoman said.
"They (the Iranians) have to be afraid of the consequences if there isn't a compromise," spokeswoman Miri Eisin cited Olmert as telling journalists on the flight to Washington.
Olmert appeared, however, to play down a senior Israeli official's suggestion that Israel is preparing for a military strike against Iran's nuclear program. Asked to comment on Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh's remarks, Olmert replied that on such matters, "we have to be very careful about what we say," Eisin said.
Israel accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons, a charge that Tehran denies.
Sneh's comments were part of a pattern of heightened Israeli rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear issue. On Sunday the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Iran's military would hit back with a "swift, strong and crushing" response to any Israeli military action against it.
In 1981, Israeli combat planes destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor. Analysts say an attack on Iran would be much more difficult because Iran has scattered its nuclear facilities and built some underground.
Olmert has said Iran's nuclear ambitions would be the main item on his agenda when he meets with U.S. officials in Washington. He had dinner with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday, but neither U.S. nor Israeli officials would describe the subjects of their conversation. Olmert was scheduled to meet with President Bush on Monday.
Israel is worried by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls to destroy Israel and — like the United States — does not believe Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is intended solely to produce energy.
While the U.S. has led international efforts to curb the Iranian unclear program, Israelis are concerned that American policy might soften following the Democratic victory in elections last week.
The fear is that with American public opinion turning against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bush would be less likely to take decisive military or diplomatic action against Iran.
Some analysts also think the Bush administration might be willing to end its policy of isolating Iran because of Tehran's influence over armed groups in Iraq.
Olmert arrived in Washington with a gutted diplomatic agenda. He took office promising to pull Israel out of much of the West Bank, but shelved that plan after Israel's summer war against Lebanese guerrillas left Israelis with little enthusiasm for territorial concessions. A recent poll put his approval rating around 20 percent.
Olmert has revived the notion of negotiating with the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, but the two men have not been able to agree on an agenda or even set a date to meet.
In the meantime, Abbas' rivals in the Palestinians' ruling Hamas party continue to call for Israel's destruction — an ideology that has led the West and Israel to cut off desperately needed funding to the Palestinian government.
There are expectations that while in Washington, Olmert will make small-scale moves on the Palestinian front, including the possibility of offering humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.
Olmert told reporters he did not expect major developments during the trip. "This isn't a dramatic visit," Eisin quoted him as saying.
From Washington, Olmert is to travel to Los Angeles to address a major Jewish group and meet with California officials.