WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Washington next week is being depicted by senior administration officials as a “getting to know you” visit. But as much as President Bush and his foreign-affairs staffers would like to get better acquainted with Olmert, they are anxious to hear more from him about his plan to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank.
Bush and his aides would like the new prime minister to explain what led him to make this ambitious plan the centerpiece of his campaign, what it is that the plan aims to achieve and how much domestic and international support Olmert would need to succeed, senior administration officials recently told Jewish communal leaders.
Olmert is not expected to present a detailed blueprint — a comprehensive plan does not yet exist, according to Israeli officials. However, according to sources close to the prime minister, in his talks with the president and with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Olmert is expected to go into more depth in presenting his plan than he has done previously.
Olmert has given more than a general outline of his so-called “convergence” plan — in Hebrew, “hitkansut,” which can be alternatively translated as “ingathering” or “consolidation.” According to one source, Olmert’s advisers, in their White House meetings this week, said that Israel plans to begin calling it the “realignment” plan.
In half a dozen press interviews before and after the March 28 elections, in his acceptance speech and in his government’s platform, Olmert has described a proposal that is nothing short of revolutionary — an adjective he himself has used to describe it — and that is by far more politically ambitious, complex, divisive and costly than his predecessor’s unilateral withdraw from Gaza. Ariel Sharon broke the Israeli taboo over unilateral territorial concessions; Olmert intends to press this approach to its politically permissible limits.
In order to secure a solid Jewish majority in areas under its sovereignty and to rid itself of an occupation it sees as damaging, Israel will strive to draw unilaterally its permanent borders with the Palestinian entity in the West Bank.
The contour of the West Bank security barrier, which may be altered in some cases to accommodate security, humanitarian or other considerations, will be the baseline for Israel’s permanent eastern border, Olmert said in several interviews. Israel will thus keep settlement blocs constituting about 8% of the West Bank’s territory, with a settler population of about 130,000. The other 60,000 settlers, who live in communities east of the fence, would be relocated.
These settlers will be encouraged to resettle in the settlement blocs that Olmert intends to maintain, in and around Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem; Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and in the Ariel area, northeast of Tel Aviv. These blocs will be further expanded and developed, but in a way that would not prevent the Palestinians from eventually establishing a contiguous state, Olmert has said. He made the point recently, when speaking to a delegation from the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum: “We need to supply Israel with [a] secure border that will allow for a contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel,” Olmert said.
For now, an “undivided” Jerusalem would also remain under Israeli sovereignty, including the Old City, Arab East Jerusalem and the Jewish neighborhoods in areas of Jerusalem occupied by Israel in 1967. Olmert does not rule out, however, the eventual transfer of some of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian rule in the future, as a part of a negotiated comprehensive final settlement.
Olmert has said that he views the Jordan Valley — in his words, “along the Jordan river” in the West Bank — as the future eastern security border of Israel. He has not painted a clear picture of what that would mean, especially in terms of the border-regime between Israel and Jordan. Arab diplomats in Washington told the Forward that Amman is already seeking Israeli and American clarifications and assurances regarding this issue.
Olmert and his closest associates gave several indications regarding the time frame they have in mind. According to several of their public statements, they would like to launch the plan before the end of 2006, and finish — or at least approach completion — by the end of Bush’s term. The settlement pullout would be completed by the end of Olmert’s four-year term, in 2010, he has indicated.
“I want to believe that when I am done, Israel will be a different country,” he recently told Jewish communal leaders.
Olmert already said that although he will seek a national dialogue on the plan, he does not intend to bring it to a referendum.
While domestic support is vitally needed for the plan to be carried out, Olmert has made it clear that international support is no less important, particularly support from the United States. Olmert will be seeking American help on several levels.
Olmert has said that he would like the international community to recognize the “convergence” borders as Israel’s permanent borders with the West Bank. That seems contradictory to the Bush administration’s policy, which says that any internationally recognized permanent border ought to be the end-result of a mutually agreed two-state solution.
David Makovsky, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently published a study on Olmert’s plan, says that the scope of Israel’s withdrawal would be linked to international — and particularly American — recognition. A serious level of recognition, possibly accompanied by guarantees for the demilitarization of areas that Israel will leave, would make it easier for Israel to remove not only its settlers but also its troops. The prospects for such international recognition, Makovsky said, seem “bleak.”
No less challenging for Olmert would be his future intention to seek international financial assistance to defray the cost of the plan, estimated by Israeli economists at $10 billion to $25 billion. Israel moved last year to request American aid to cover some of the $2 billion to $3 billion cost of its “disengagement” from Gaza, but withdrew that request once hurricanes hit America’s Gulf coast.
Pro-Israel advocates in Washington, including members of Congress, say that there is virtually no chance for a multibillion aid package for Israel. These sources, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that much more realistic would be an Israeli request for American loan-guarantees.