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Olmert hints force against Iran

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that "all options" were open to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, suggesting that Israel was prepared to use military force if it deemed it necessary against Tehran's nuclear program.

At a Jerusalem hotel, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began preliminary talks on the core issues of a final peace agreement, following a visit by President Bush last week to prod forward negotiations.

Olmert's comment on Iran, stronger than his previous statements on the subject, followed his discussions with Bush on Tehran's nuclear program, and after a U.S. intelligence estimate last month stated "with high confidence" that Iran had halted nuclear weapons development in 2003. Israeli officials disputed that assessment, and Bush said here last week that Iran remained "a threat to world peace."

"Regarding the threat of nuclear Iran, all options are on the table," an official spokesman quoted Olmert as telling parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whose meetings are closed. "Israel cannot reconcile itself with a nuclear Iran, and there is no option which we are ruling out in advance."

Israeli warplanes bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq shortly before it was to have become operational in 1981, and attacked a site in Syria in September reportedly thought by Israeli intelligence to be linked to a nascent nuclear program.

Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, but Israeli intelligence assessments indicate Iran could develop a nuclear bomb by 2010. Israeli officials have urged vigorous diplomatic activity and sanctions to pressure Tehran to halt its nuclear program, but have stopped short of threatening military action.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the Israeli chief negotiator, met with her Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, to start talks on the core issues of a final peace agreement: borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements.

"We started today talking about all the core issues," Qureia said after the two-hour meeting. "We talked about these issues in general. The talks were positive, but the path ahead is difficult."

Israeli officials said Livni and Qureia planned to meet at least once a week. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said their discussions "will be intensive."

Livni said yesterday that the talks "are being conducted quietly" and away from "the glare of the cameras," which she said had in the past led to the adoption of hard-line positions and "raised expectations, followed by disappointment and violence."

The two sides pledged at a U.S.-sponsored conference in late November to re-launch negotiations with the aim of reaching a peace treaty by the end of the year, but early rounds of talks stalled in disputes over Israeli settlement building and rocket-firing by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman in Gaza for the militant group Hamas, condemned yesterday's talks, calling them "a crime against the Palestinian people." Hamas, which violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, refuses to recognize Israel and rejects a permanent peace with it.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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