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Olmert's boast on U.N. Gaza vote is 'completely not true,' U.S. says

The Israeli leader says he persuaded Bush to reverse a vote on a Gaza cease-fire resolution. But the State Department says Condoleezza Rice decided to abstain long before the phone call.

January 14, 2009|Peter Spiegel

WASHINGTON — A boast by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he persuaded President Bush to reverse a U.S. vote on a Gaza cease-fire at the United Nations is "just 100% totally completely not true," the State Department declared Tuesday.

The rare public dust-up between the Bush administration and the Israeli government was sparked by a speech Olmert gave on Monday. In the address, he said Bush agreed to abstain on last week's cease-fire resolution only after Olmert personally phoned the president minutes before the vote.

But Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had traveled to New York two days before the vote and was intensely involved in negotiations on the resolution's wording, had decided to abstain long before the vote and Olmert's views had not changed her position.

It was not clear whether the falling-out would have any lasting effect on ties between the allies. But McCormack said the United States could ask Israel to clarify the prime minster's comments, a step that would indicate deep diplomatic displeasure.

Rice has said the administration supported the language in the U.N. resolution, which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, but it wanted to give an Egyptian-led mediation effort more time.

"Secretary Rice's recommendation and inclination the entire time was to abstain," McCormack said of U.S. deliberations that occurred the afternoon before the 15-member Security Council held its vote. "I can tell you with 100% assurance that her intention was 100% to recommend abstention."

There was no immediate reaction Tuesday from the prime minister's office.

Rice's decision not to vote on the resolution surprised some U.S. allies in the Arab world, who later said they had been told that the Americans were going to support the resolution, which ultimately passed the Security Council 14-0.

Just before the Security Council convened to consider the resolution, senior British and Saudi officials indicated they believed that the vote would be unanimous.

The post-balloting confusion lent credibility to Olmert's account, in which he said he reached Bush by phone 10 minutes before the vote was to occur and told him, "You can't vote for it." Olmert, speaking to an audience in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, said Bush quickly contacted Rice and "gave an order to the secretary of State."

"She was left pretty embarrassed, abstaining on a draft resolution she organized herself," Olmert said.

Although McCormack confirmed that Bush had talked to Olmert, neither he nor the White House would discuss the content of the conversation.

"She was not at all embarrassed or ashamed of the actions that we took, not only in pushing through an important resolution, a good resolution," McCormack said. "She felt as though the way that the United States voted, in that Security Council chamber, was the right way to vote."

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Geraldine Baum at the United Nations and Gabby Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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