JERUSALEM -- Six months: That's how long Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently gave Palestinians to meet Israel's conditions for negotiating peace. Yet even that brief opening was just lip service. For ever since he accepted the fact that Israel must cede land to remain a Jewish state, Olmert's preferred partner has been Washington, not Ramallah.
And so, next week at the White House, Olmert will ask for U.S. endorsement of the plan that now defines him as a leader, a plan under which Israel would withdraw unilaterally from the heart of the West Bank to a line approximating the security barrier it has been building, and declare that to be the country's final border. Israeli settlements inside the fence, where two-thirds of settlers live, would stay put and grow; those outside would be evacuated.
Should President Bush provide the countersignature? Olmert, of course, was uninterested in negotiating with the Palestinians even before Hamas won their elections. Any agreement with the Palestinians, he knows, would mean ceding more land and settlements than he wants to. But now that the Palestinian Authority has a cabinet that will neither recognize Israel nor renounce terrorism, hasn't Olmert's approach become the only option left for progress toward resolving the conflict?
Well, yes, most certainly, and also no.
Olmert's government is the first ever elected in Israel on an explicit platform of dismantling settlements. It reflects a new Israeli consensus that the shared, contested homeland of Jews and Palestinians must be partitioned -- and that even without peace, Israel is better off ending the occupation. The United States should seek to sustain this political momentum.
What's more, the settlements that Olmert wants to dismantle include most of those deep in the West Bank, wedged between Palestinian towns, creating an artificial Bosnia of hostile ethnic entanglement. Removing them would alleviate some of the daily friction between occupier and occupied. For Israel, it would mean pulling one leg out of the quagmire.
But it wouldn't resolve the conflict. If the barrier became the border, Israel would retain a tenth of the West Bank. A thin tendril of Israeli-held land would stretch up through the West Bank hills to the settlement of Ariel, and another tendril to Kedumim, near Nablus. Driving from one part of Palestinian land to another -- to visit a brother, deliver a truckful of produce to market or hold a meeting between officials -- is likely to remain an odyssey. By one estimate, 30,000 Palestinians would remain under Israeli rule (as unwilling citizens? as permanent aliens?) and more would live in pockets surrounded by Israeli land.
If it continues to invest in the remaining settlements, Israel will be pushing its other leg deeper into the quicksand. Without peace, it will be burdened with defending those tendrils. Even the most moderate of Palestinians won't consider the partial pullback an end to occupation.
And the moderates are there. Remember: Only a quirky electoral system gave Hamas a majority in the Palestinian legislature; in the popular vote, the hard-line movement didn't come close to winning. Polls among Palestinians continue to show strong majority support for a two-state solution and recognition of Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of the more moderate Fatah, continues to call for talks with Israel.
The gap between Hamas's positions and public leanings is causing ferment in Palestinian politics. One sign of that is the accord just signed between top figures in Fatah and Hamas imprisoned in Israel. It calls for establishing a Palestinian state "on all territories occupied in 1967" -- thereby accepting Israel's existence within its pre-1967 borders. That doesn't mean that Hamas has yet met the minimum requirements for negotiating; it does mean that strong forces within the movement are looking for a way toward diplomacy.
What's lacking in Olmert's plan is an incentive to return to the table. If Palestinians will get the same borders no matter what, why negotiate? The message should be that with recognition, with an end to violence and with willingness to reach agreement, Palestinians could achieve much more than the borders Israel would impose unilaterally. That would boost Palestinian public pressure on Hamas to change, or split in two, or step aside and let Abbas negotiate. The process might take longer than Israel can wait before planning a pullout, but the offer must remain open.
So Bush should give Olmert half an endorsement. Withdrawing is an excellent idea, he should say. We hail it as a sign of Israel's desire to reach peace. But evacuated settlers must move to Israel proper, not to other settlements. As for a countersignature on final borders, you will need to seek that in Ramallah. Be ready for it to take more than six months.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977."