Olmert, Cheered in D.C., Bows to U.S. Call for Talks

Opponents Move To Sink Unilateral Plan

By Ori Nir

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Despite receiving warm embraces in Congress and in the White House this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned home with mounting opposition and a lack of clear American support for his plan to have Israel determine its borders unilaterally.

President Bush effusively praised Olmert during a White House meeting Tuesday, and Olmert was cheered repeatedly in an address to a joint session of Congress the next day. The Israeli premier even received a nod of approval from the president to act unilaterally if negotiations with the Palestinians are impossible — but Bush reiterated his view that Israel’s permanent borders could be set only through an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

At a joint press conference, Bush described Olmert’s proposals as “bold ideas” that “could be an important step toward the peace we both support,” but he also said that “no party should prejudice the outcome of negotiations on a final status agreement.”

While Israeli officials highlighted Bush’s praise of Olmert and his ideas, the continued American insistence on a negotiated settlement appears to have forced a shift in Jerusalem’s approach. This week, in an apparent nod to Bush’s wishes, Olmert repeatedly expressed his commitment to pursue serious negotiations with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, before pursuing a unilateral pullback from the West Bank.

Though many Israeli voters embraced Olmert’s earlier emphasis on unilateralism, it has failed to attract a similar level of support in Washington or among American Jewish leaders.

“The irony, of course, is that [the criticism of the plan] is coming from two diametrically opposed directions,” said Shai Feldman, director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

“On the one hand, Americans who are pro-Likud or to the right of Likud are admonishing Israel for giving a ‘prize to terrorists.’ On the other hand, critics on the left are focusing not on the 90% of territory that Israel intends to leave, but on the 10% that it intends to obtain,” Feldman said. “Here is an Israeli prime minister who says: ‘I want to unilaterally, unconditionally, all but end an almost 40-year occupation of most of the West Bank,’ and it seems that no one gives him the credit and the assistance he deserves. It’s absurd.”

During Olmert’s trip, vocal objections were raised from hawkish Jewish groups as well as from conservative pundits and institutions in Washington. This week, the Center for Security Policy started running TV ads on CNN that called Olmert’s plan “insanity,” which “we can’t afford.” The center is a conservative think tank directed by Frank Gaffney, who was a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration. The honorary co-chair of the center, former CIA director James Woolsey, wrote Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, warning that “Israeli concessions indeed enhance Palestinian hope, but not of a reasonable two-state solution — rather a hope that they will actually be able to destroy Israel.” Columnist Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, is a fellow with the center. This week, she lobbied members of Congress on Capitol Hill against the Olmert plan.

Two groups strongly opposed to Israeli territorial concessions, the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel, each ran advertisements criticizing Olmert’s approach. The AFSI ad, which ran as a full page Wednesday in The Washington Times and was signed by several evangelical leaders, called on Bush to reject Olmert’s “suicidal” plan.

Olmert was also greeted in Washington by a vociferous demonstration Tuesday. Several ultra-hawkish Jewish groups organized it, including AFSI.

Led by the new Jewish Defense League splinter group B’nai Elim, demonstrators called Olmert a “traitor” and painted him as a defeatist weakling who encourages and emboldens terrorists. Several other right-leaning Jewish groups that oppose the plan did not take part in the rally, which drew about 300 protesters.

On the left, many observers are suspicious of Olmert’s intentions, accusing him of concocting a “land-grab” in the guise of a pullout. They also warned against moves that are not an outcome of negotiations with the Palestinians.

In USA Today last week, former President Jimmy Carter wrote: “It is inconceivable that any Palestinian, Arab leader, or any objective member of the international community could accept this illegal action as a permanent solution to the continuing altercation in the Middle East. This confiscation of land is to be carried out without resorting to peace talks with the Palestinians, and in direct contravention of the ‘road map for peace,’ which President Bush helped to initiate and has strongly supported.”

Left-leaning Jewish groups expressed similar concerns. Though it supports any evacuation of settlements, Americans for Peace Now warned against the international recognition of unilaterally determined borders, as did the Israel Policy Forum. Diane Balser, executive director of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, told the Forward that Olmert’s plan is “dangerous” because of its emphasis on unilateral action.

The Bush administration and its international allies appear to share such concerns about a unilateral approach, which is why Olmert went out of his way this week to emphasize his keen intention to “exhaust every possibility to promote peace with the Palestinians” through negotiations “on the basis of the road map.”

On Wednesday, addressing a joint session of Congress, Olmert was cheered repeatedly when he expressed Israel’s yearning for peace and normalcy, and when he stated that “Palestinians are an inseparable part” of the Land of Israel and that “they, too, have a right to freedom and national inspirations.”

Olmert received 20 standing ovations as he presented the rationale for his plan and explained that the Israeli people had come to the conclusion that it must “compromise in the name of peace” — that it must “relinquish a part of our dream, to make room for the dreams of others, so that all of us can enjoy a better future.”

In an interview with CNN on the eve of his visit, he went so far as to say that he was “elected prime minister of Israel on that sole agenda, that I’m prepared to negotiate with the Palestinians” — even though, during the campaign, Olmert clearly emphasized unilateralism over negotiations.

Olmert also has vowed to meet soon with Abbas, whom he characterized in his White House comments as “genuine” and “sincere.” And according to sources in his entourage, Olmert also discussed with Bush and with his advisers ways to strengthen Abbas and to help him become an empowered interlocutor as he struggles for power with the P.A.’s Hamas-led government.

At the same time, Olmert made a point on several high-profile occasions to repeat his commitment to act unilaterally if the Palestinians fail to prove themselves as a legitimate peace partner.

Olmert assured members of Congress that even if Israel decides to go it alone, without a Palestinian partner, it would coordinate its moves with the United States closely.

The Israeli premier stressed that his conditions for negotiations with the Palestinians are as tough as the ones established by his predecessor. In order for Abbas to qualify as an interlocutor for peace talks, Olmert said, he would have to do more than verbally commit to fulfilling the requirements of the road map agreement. During his White House press conference with Bush, Olmert said that Abbas would have to “deliver” by recognizing Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state,” disarming the terrorist groups and implementing “all the obligations of the agreements signed between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Olmert told reporters that he was “very, very very satisfied” with the content and the atmospherics of his talks with America’s top leaders. He indeed had many good reasons for satisfaction, as he had spent almost six hours with the president — including 90 minutes in private, with only Olmert’s wife joining them. In addition, he met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, as well as the leaders of both chambers of Congress. “I am very flattered by the approach, by the depth in which we dealt with a very broad variety of issues and by the great personal involvement of the American [foreign policy] team,” Olmert said.

The prime minister said that he was touched by a personal gift that he received from Bush: a set of running shoes and a matching sweat suit, adorned with his name and with Israeli and American flags. “They bothered to find out what the size of my shoes was,” Olmert told reporters.

At the White House press conference, Bush made several statements that were music to the ears of Olmert and his entourage. The president delivered the most explicit commitment he ever has made to defend Israel against an Iranian attack. “In the event of any attack on Israel,” Bush said, “the United States will come to Israel’s aid.”

Although he did not firmly embrace Olmert’s unilateralism, Bush did say that the Israeli leader’s ideas “could lead to a two-state solution” in the absence of negotiation, and that they “could be an important step toward the peace [that Bush and Olmert] both support.” Bush also said that he was “encouraged” by Olmert’s “constructive efforts to find ways to move the peace process forward.”

Briefing reporters, Olmert and his advisers painted these presidential statements as very significant expressions of support for Olmert’s approach. His senior adviser, Raanan Gissin, told the Forward that when dealing with any American administration, progress is always incremental; it is measured in inches, over time, rather than in yards or in miles. He noted that it took the Bush administration more than a year to fully endorse Sharon’s plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza.

Olmert said that many questions regarding his plan remained open, so as not to overload his first discussion as prime minister with Bush. They did not discuss future borders and the contours of the future Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank, though Olmert promised it would be “contiguous” to allow for a viable Palestinian state. Also, potential repercussions of the plan for Jordan were not discussed.

The Israeli leader said that he did not talk about the possible cost of the plan. Nor did he request that the administration make good on promises it made to his predecessor to offer financial assistance for the development of Israel’s northern and southern periphery. On the other side, Olmert said, Bush and his advisers did not demand that Israel accelerate its dismantlement of the illegal outposts in the West Bank, and they were generally supportive in comments they made about the contour of Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank.

In reply to a question from the Forward, Olmert said that he intends to update America’s Jewish community leaders as he advances his plan. “When we reach the phase where things will ripen — in the right way and at the appropriate time — there will be updates,” he said.

Visit www.forward.com for a report on Olmert’s meeting Wednesday with Jewish communal leaders.

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