US Vice President Dick Cheney's second meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Monday morning, like their first meeting Saturday night, was shrouded in mystery, leading to speculation among diplomatic officials that the focus was on how to stop Iran's nuclear program.
The Prime Minister's Office, which generally puts out a statement or briefs the press after Olmert meets with a world figure of Cheney's stature, was mum about the content of both meetings. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, would only say that Monday's meeting was a "good" one, and that the two men "discussed a range of issues, including the peace process, terrorism and threats to regional security."
While Cheney's public statements during his two days here dealt primarily with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, one diplomatic source said that in Cheney's private meeting with Olmert, it was clear that Iran was the central issue.
After a breakfast meeting with Olmert, Cheney told reporters that Hamas, aided by Syria and Iran, were trying to "torpedo" the diplomatic talks.
"It is clearly a difficult situation, in part, because - I think it's true - there's evidence that Hamas is supported by Iran and Syria and that they're doing everything they can to torpedo the peace process," Cheney said.
Referring to Yemeni efforts to broker negotiations between Hamas and Fatah, Cheney said that after meeting with Fatah's leadership, his impression was that "they have established some preconditions before they would ever consider a reconciliation, including a complete reversal of the Hamas takeover of Gaza."
No sooner had Cheney boarded his plane for Turkey, the final leg of a 10-day Middle East trip, than Israeli diplomatic officials began preparing for the next wave of high-level visits of American officials.
Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a long-time staunch supporter of Israel, is scheduled to arrive on a fact-finding visit on Tuesday, followed by Gen. William Fraser, the US's road map monitor, on Wednesday; Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff on Thursday; and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday night.
Apparently timed to coincide with the upcoming visit of Fraser and Rice, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would begin making life easier for Palestinians in the West Bank, but would not remove checkpoints for now.
Barak, during a visit to the Tarkumiya checkpoint near Hebron, said Israel was working on making crossing through checkpoints easier and facilitating new industrial zones to create thousands of jobs for Palestinians.
He is scheduled to meet PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad on Wednesday and is mulling a number of gestures, including opening a VIP lane at checkpoints and exempting Palestinian businessmen who are approved by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) from inspections.
Rice reportedly expressed impatience with Barak during her visit here earlier this month, saying that he could do more to facilitate Palestinian movement and make their everyday lives easier.
Meanwhile, in line with the policy of improving the quality of life in the West Bank, the Civil Administration will inaugurate a new power station near Jenin on Tuesday to provide electricity to four villages that until now have been powered by generators.
The villages - Rummama, Tanah, Hirbat a-Tiba and Zbuba - will receive electricity from Israel Electric for the first time in history. In addition, a water reservoir near Zbuba will be connected to the grid, a step that will significantly lower the price of water - by NIS 8 - for the residents of 11 Palestinian villages in the area.
The construction of the power station, as well as the new power lines, was made possible by a €11.5 million donation from France and included the construction of power lines in 27 villages throughout northern Samaria. A ceremony will be held on Tuesday at the new power station, attended by Jenin Governor Kadura Mussa and Civil Administration chief in Jenin Lt.-Col. Fares Atilla.
Defense officials said that the new power station was part of a list of projects the Civil Administration was overseeing in conjunction with international organizations.