JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could not have asked or hoped for much more surprisingly enthusiastic, if still qualified, support from U.S. President George Bush for his West Bank withdrawal plan.
His speech to both houses of Congress was interrupted no fewer than 38 times by rapturous applause. And he won a pledge from the most powerful country in the world to come to Israel’s aid if it is attacked.
It was clearly a buoyed Israeli prime minister who touched down Thursday in Israel after his first trip to Washington since winning election in March.
On the eve of his visit, Olmert had lowered expectations. Do not expect American backing for Olmert’s unilateral West Bank withdrawal plan, officials on both sides said. Bush is facing an array of domestic and international woes, they continued. The last thing he needs now is a new, controversial foreign policy challenge. The bottom line: at best, expect highly qualified, tepid U.S. support for the Israeli leader’s plan.
In this light, President Bush’s comments about another unilateral Israeli pullout he called Olmert’s ideas "bold" border on an enthusiastic endorsement.
Olmert can argue, with no small measure of justification, that his visit to the White House has laid an initial foundation for his relationship with Bush, for future American support of his West Bank plan, and for U.S. support in the face of Iranian threats.
The next and most crucial test will be whether he can translate these initial achievements into unqualified U.S. backing for his pullout plan.
While emphasizing at a joint White House press conference with the Israeli leader that the internationally backed road map for peace was still his preferred route to a solution in the Middle East, and that the two sides had to try get back to the negotiating table, Bush declared that Olmert’s ideas for a unilateral pullout could be "an important step toward the peace we both support."
Olmert, who does not believe that negotiations with the Palestinians will produce concrete results, paid lip service to the call for renewed dialogue, vowing to "exhaust" every avenue for peace. But, he added, Israel would not wait indefinitely for the Palestinians to change, and would be "compelled to try a different route" if it discovered that dialogue was not possible.
The Israeli leader was referring to his West Bank pullout plan, which he told reporters in Washington should be called "realignment," not "convergence."
It entails the evacuation of some 60,000-70,000 settlers from isolated settlements and the resettlement of the evacuees in major West Bank settlement blocs that the prime minister said would be a part of Israel in a final status agreement with the Palestinians.
"We will remove most of the settlements which are not part of the major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria," Olmert said, using the biblical Hebrew names for the West Bank.
While the Americans may still have hopes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can deliver in negotiations, Olmert’s aides made it clear he does not.
The prime minister may have referred to the Palestinian leader during the press conference by the more esteemed title of president, rather than chairman (of the Palestinian Authority), but he appears to be going through the motions rather than radiating any sincere belief in dialogue.
Olmert was quoted this week as saying that he would allow six to nine months for negotiations before pursuing the unilateral route. This time-frame suits both his calendar as well as that of the Americans: during this period, the U.S. administration will push for a renewal of dialogue, but at the same time the Israeli leader will be working on the details of his pullout plan and talking them over with the administration.
The exact line to which Olmert plans to withdraw some members of his party talk of a withdrawal from 91.5 percent of the West Bank still has to be determined, as does the fate of the Jordan Valley (the eastern section of the West Bank that abuts Jordan) where the Israeli leader has spoken in unclear terms of a security border.
Olmert also has to decide whether the Israeli army will withdraw entirely from the area beyond the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, or whether the military will continue to operate in this area even after the settlements there have been evacuated and the barrier becomes a temporary border.
Bush and Olmert spoke with one voice on Hamas: the Islamic movement, which swept to power in Palestinian parliamentary elections in late January, must recognize Israel, renounce violence, and honor all agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as a prerequisite for talks.
"No country can be expected to make peace with those who deny its right to exist and who use terror to attack its population," Bush said.
Olmert has also returned home reassured by Bush over U.S. efforts aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear program. Bush told reporters that the U.S. and the international community were determined that the Iranian regime "must not gain nuclear weapons." In the event of an attack on Israel, the president continued, "the United States will come to Israel’s aid."
The Israeli leader, who said recently he believes Iran will "cross the technological threshold" on its way to nuclear capability in about a year, told reporters during his visit that there was a "full understanding" between himself and Bush on the Iranian issue.
If that is correct, then Olmert’s strident comments on the Iran issue when he addressed both houses of Congress on Wednesday are revealing: a nuclear armed Iran is an "intolerable threat to the peace and security of the world" and cannot be permitted to materialize.
"Our moment is now," he declared, as if exhorting his audience to action.
Olmert will have returned home basking in the warm atmospherics of his visit. But with Bush bogged down by Iraq and a host of domestic woes, and with European leaders clearly unenthusiastic about more unilateral Israeli moves, his real test will be in transforming the warm words of support and standing ovations in Washington into unqualified, concrete American backing for his "realignment" plan.