Ehud Olmert, who is scheduled to meet George Bush at the White House on Tuesday, is also likely to hold talks with the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

 

The talks are expected to focus on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians as well as Iran's nuclear programme.

 

Olmert's plan to delineate Israel's borders by withdrawing from parts of the West Bank while annexing large settlements blocs built on the Palestinian land will top the agenda.

 

The Israeli premier said he would rather achieve his plan through negotiations with the Palestinians but, claiming he has no partner for peace among them, said he would go ahead with or without their agreement.

 

But Israel needs to show Washington, which favours a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, that it actually tried to speak to them.

 

"(Olmert) sees no reason not to hold a future meeting with Mahmoud Abbas."

Tzipi Livni,
Israeli foreign minister

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni talked with Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of an economic conference in Egypt on Sunday.

Olmert-Abbas meeting

After the 45-minute talks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, she said that Olmert "sees no reason not to hold a future meeting with Mahmoud Abbas."

 

The pair is expected to meet when Olmert comes back from Washington.

 

Sunday's bilateral talks marked the resumption of high-level contacts between Israel and the Palestinians since the victory of the militant Hamas group in the January general elections.

 

Israel, Europe and the United States have boycotted the government formed by Hamas in March because the Islamist group does not recognise the Jewish state and has refused to disarm.

 

Settlement expansion

 

Olmert's trip to the United States came as Israeli officials said four West Bank settlements had been approved for expansion.

 

Washington's repeated calls for an end to settlement activity, which it says does not help peace-making, have largely fallen on deaf ears.

 

But the US has rarely taken any action over the settlements.

 

The Abbas-Livni talks mark the
resumption of a bilateral dialogue

Three of the settlements slated for expansion lie within areas that Olmert hopes to annex Israel when he draws its final borders.

 

Israel's defence ministry, which oversees settlement activity, said the expansion orders were signed by the former defence minister, Shaul Mofaz.

 

His successor Amir Peretz, who took office this month, cannot rescind the orders, defence officials said.

 

But they said Peretz, the dovish leader of the Labour Party who has criticised such construction, will consider changing settlement policy.

 

The Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, said: "This Israeli government should stop this, not approve this."

 

"This act of expanding settlements is a choice for more obstacles and more problems and more violence."

 

Iran

 

Meanwhile, Olmert told CNN in a pre-recorded interview that Iran was just a few months away from acquiring the technological know-how that will allow it to build a nuclear bomb.

 

"This act of expanding settlements is a choice for more obstacles and more problems and more violence."

Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat

Olmert said the key issue regarding Iran was not when they build a nuclear bomb, but rather when they acquire the knowledge they need to manufacture such arms.

 

"This technological threshold is nearer than we anticipated before. This is because they are already engaged very seriously in enrichment," Olmert said. "The technological threshold is very close. It can be measured in months rather than years."

 

Washington and Tel Aviv share the same fear of a nuclear-capable Iran while the Islamic republic insists its enrichment program is for civilian purposes only.