By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won election on a platform of withdrawing from most of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. But when he makes his first official visit to the White House today, U.S. officials said the message from President Bush will be: Don't fulfill your campaign promises too quickly.
Olmert's plan would build on the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that the Israeli government engineered last year -- and which the administration avidly supported at the time. The Israeli government has said it needs to take unilateral steps in the West Bank because it has had no partner for peace since the unexpected victory in Palestinian elections by the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas -- which is dedicated to Israel's destruction.
But the new plan, which probably involves the departure of at least 60,000 people from 72 settlements, comes at a delicate moment for the Bush administration.
The financial crisis that has engulfed the Palestinian territories since Western nations cut off funding for the Palestinian Authority has begun to weaken support in Europe for a tough response. Moreover, many European officials fear Olmert's plan is an attempt by Israel to set permanent borders without negotiating with the Palestinians -- at a time when the Bush administration is struggling to win European support for unified action to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Israel's Arab neighbors also are alarmed at the idea, believing it will encourage radicalism among the Palestinians.
King Abdullah of Jordan wrote to Bush last week to express concern that unilateral action by Israel could undermine Jordanian security. Jordanian Ambassador Karim Kawar said that because the Gaza withdrawal had not been negotiated, Hamas was able to claim credit and win the elections.
Bush administration officials have been reluctant to provide a full-throated endorsement of Olmert's ideas -- but also are not closing off options. In the view of some of them, Olmert's plan contains the seeds of a potential Palestinian state, since it would result in the end of much of the settlement activity on the West Bank.
But the notion of such an outcome by fiat makes U.S. officials uneasy, because it may appear as though the United States is endorsing a land grab. Olmert has pledged to retain significant settlements near Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank.
In late March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave the administration's most extensive statement on Olmert's concept, saying: "Everyone would like to see a negotiated solution."
But, after noting that the Americans needed to learn more about the plan, Rice appeared to offer encouragement when she added: "I would note that if you're going to have a negotiation, though, you have to have partners. And the Palestinian government that has just been sworn in does not accept the concept of a negotiated solution. . . . On that basis, with that government, it's going to be hard to imagine a negotiation."
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House, said that President Bush will be asking lots of questions about the plan, which has been described as "convergence," "conversion" and "realignment." The official listed more than a dozen possible questions, including whether the Israeli military would stay after the settlers left, whether Israel would retain control of the Jordan Valley, whether Israel has consulted with Jordan, and what would be the legal status of the fence and wall that Israel is building around Palestinian areas on the West Bank.
Bush has pledged support for the creation of a Palestinian state, and the U.S. official added that a critical question would be whether Olmert's plan is compatible with a two-state solution. He said that if the answer is yes, Bush wants Olmert to explain how it is compatible. The administration went through a similar period of questioning about the Gaza plan, after it was first announced by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- and ultimately concluded that it was consistent with a negotiated solution, even though it was a unilateral action.
But U.S. officials said a West Bank withdrawal would be bigger, more complex and fraught with more difficulties. It should not be assumed that this time the administration would reach the same conclusion, they said.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have pushed the Israelis to engage more with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who retains a role in the Palestinian government even though his Fatah party lost the legislative elections.
Israeli officials have made little secret of their view that Abbas is weak and cannot fulfill commitments -- Olmert told CNN on Sunday that "Abbas doesn't have even the power to take charge of his own government" -- but U.S. pressure appears to be having an effect. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with Abbas in Egypt yesterday.
U.S. officials say Abbas can still play a role, though they are dubious about his demand to begin final-status negotiations. They appear to be suggesting to the Israelis that they must at least make the appearance of seeking a Palestinian partner before they can declare none exists.