On Eve of Olmert Visit, White House Holds Off Embracing Pullout Plan

Immigration Tiff in Israel Splits Justices

By Ori Nir

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — With President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set to meet next week, the White House is sending clear signals that it does not plan to offer an immediate public endorsement of the Israeli leader’s plan for unilateral pullbacks from the West Bank.

This week Bush administration officials told a team of Olmert aides, as well as Jewish communal leaders, that it is too early for Bush to offer a public endorsement of Olmert’s so-called “convergence” plan for unilateral withdrawals. The White House is not even expected to grill Olmert over the details of the plan.

Senior administration officials reportedly told their European colleagues that American approval for Israeli efforts to unilaterally draw a border with the Palestinians is “not in the cards.” One senior European diplomat said this week in Washington that Israel was deluding itself if it believed Europe would “sign the dotted line” on Israel taking a unilateral approach at this time.

Olmert, who campaigned heavily on the notion that Israel would act unilaterally without a Palestinian peace partner, could be severely weakened at home if over the long run he fails to secure American support for his approach. For now, Israeli officials said, Olmert is well aware of the mood in Washington and European capitals and will therefore not push for such international recognition at this time.

At most, sources said, Olmert will only seek a private nod of approval from the administration for the general idea of a unilateral approach if meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians fail to materialize. The premier does not intend to ask for additional American financial aid or for any specific gesture from Washington, sources said.

Olmert “is going to put issues on the table,” said Dennis Ross, who was special Middle East coordinator in the Clinton administration. “He’s going to say: ‘It’s a concept, it’s not a plan.’” At the same time, Ross added, Olmert wants to “say what it is he’s contemplating, what it is that’s at stake and what it is that he needs to carry it out.”

The administration is expected to raise Jordanians concerns that Olmert’s plan — if not closely coordinated with Amman — could destabilize the kingdom, which maintains a peace treaty with Israel and has strong ties with the United States.

Bush and Olmert are also expected to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions, albeit not in much detail, sources said.

The most pressing topic of conversation, observers said, is the question of how to maintain a unified international strategy on dealing with the Palestinian government, which is now headed by the terrorist organization Hamas.

“This is an even more immediate issue for Olmert in dealing with the United States” than questions about the convergence plan, said David Makovsky, a scholar on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The key challenge facing Bush and Olmert, Makovsky continued, is to figure out “how to help the Palestinian people without helping Hamas” and how to do that without causing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

This week National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley summoned a group of 30 American Jewish communal leaders for a meeting, during which he implied that the administration and Israel see eye to eye on the need for tough measures to isolate and pressure Hamas. Hadley explicitly said that the administration objects to the idea — introduced by France, opposed by Israel — of using European Union funds to pay the salaries of P.A. employees directly. But Hadley did say the administration supports giving humanitarian aid to the P.A., and plans to do so.

After meeting with senior administration policymakers on Middle East affairs, European diplomats in Washington said this week that they believe they have secured American and Israeli approval for transferring payments to Palestinian government health-care employees.

“We will not call it salaries,” a senior European diplomat said. “We will find an appropriate name.”

“No one — including Israelis and Americans — wants to see pictures of dying children in Palestinian hospitals,” the diplomat added.

Hadley opened the Monday meeting with Jewish communal leaders by saying that Bush would like to forge a strong personal bond with Olmert; he evaded questions on the expected substance of Olmert’s visit, saying that this is not a time for dealing with “tactics” but a time to have a “strategic” approach.

Hadley avoided any commitment to endorsing Olmert’s plan. He indicated, however, that the administration would give its blessing to the prime minister’s general approach. He noted that Bush strengthened his close relationship with Sharon while working together to implement Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza.

Speaking to an Orthodox Union delegation last week, the point man on Middle East issues at the National Security Council, Elliott Abrams, characterized the Bush-Olmert meeting as a “getting to know you” meeting.

The administration “has plunged expectations lower than the Dead Sea,” Makovsky said. With such a low threshold, he noted, any positive development would be interpreted as an achievement.

Administration officials, according to Israeli and American sources, will ask Olmert to explain his stated intentions to give negotiations a chance before moving unilaterally to determine Israel’s borders. The Israeli premier indicated that he intends to leave a six-month window for negotiations and has said that he intends to meet soon with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the P.A. Abbas, who is also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and heads the secularist nationalist Fatah movement, has criticized Hamas for refusing to recognize Israel.

Olmert has not made clear whether he sees Abbas as a potential negotiating partner. When asked by Jewish communal leaders about America’s position on the issue, Hadley, according to several people who attended the meeting, said something to the effect that the Palestinian president has yet to prove that he can deliver.

Shortly before his Monday meeting with Jewish leaders, Hadley met with Olmert’s three senior advisors. The advisers also met separately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Israeli officials said that Olmert’s main goal is to raise his profile in Washington.

“He is little known in Washington,” an Israeli diplomat said. “He needs to present himself and his plans.”

Olmert will meet May 22 with Rice to prepare for his meeting the next day with Bush in the Oval Office. On May 24 he is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress and meet with a large group of American Jewish communal leaders. He is also expected to visit with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and brief a select group of columnists.

Ross predicted that Olmert would be successful in connecting with Bush. The president, Ross said, puts a premium on creating personal contacts with leaders of America’s international allies, and typically finds it easy to create such relationships with leaders who are personable. Olmert, he said, is such a person.

“Olmert is a guy who knows how to shmooze,” Ross said, “and with someone like Bush, shmooze is the way to go.”

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