Correction to This Article
A May 24 article identified Edward G. Abington Jr. as a consultant to the Palestinian Authority. That role ended when a Hamas-led cabinet was installed; he is now a consultant to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel Has 'Bold Ideas,' Bush Says

President Bush, escorting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from the East Room after a joint news conference, said the Israeli's ideas
President Bush, escorting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from the East Room after a joint news conference, said the Israeli's ideas "could be an important step toward the peace we both support." (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

President Bush yesterday embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strategy of withdrawing from isolated Jewish settlements on the West Bank and unilaterally imposing final borders over Palestinian objections if he cannot negotiate a peace plan with their leaders.

Welcoming Olmert to the White House for the first time since his election eight weeks ago, Bush reserved judgment on the specifics of any "realignment" plan but called the concepts "bold ideas" and expressed satisfaction that the new Israeli leader would first make a serious attempt to craft an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"While any final-status agreement will be only achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes and no party should prejudice the outcome of negotiations on a final-status agreement, the prime minister's ideas could be an important step toward the peace we both support," Bush said with Olmert at his side in the East Room.

Although qualified, the Bush endorsement cleared the way for Olmert to pursue his plans for resolving decades-old territorial disputes with the Palestinians. In succeeding Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after his debilitating stroke, Olmert vowed to pull out of much of the West Bank and redraw lines -- much as Sharon withdrew from Gaza last year. Many Palestinians view Olmert's realignment as a land grab because he intends to keep major West Bank enclaves and East Jerusalem within Israel.

Bush pressed Olmert during their meetings to sit down with Abbas before proceeding. In his public comments, Olmert vowed to do so soon and to "exhaust all efforts" to find a mutually acceptable peace deal. At the same time, Olmert ruled out talks involving the Palestinian cabinet and parliament dominated by the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, unless it renounces support for violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist, a position that Bush supports.

"We are anxious to have negotiations," Olmert said. "We will look and find every possible avenue to help establish a process of negotiations on the basis of these conditions. However, as I said, we will not wait indefinitely."

If he does not find a negotiating partner, he said, he will proceed with his plan to draw his own boundaries separating Israel from a new Palestinian state. "Hopefully, this is something that will happen within the next three to four years," he said.

Abbas met with Olmert's foreign minister on Monday, but it remains unclear whether he has the ability to negotiate an agreement for the Palestinian side, much less enforce one. Abbas's more moderate party, Fatah, refused to join the new cabinet after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January, and security forces for the two factions have clashed in recent days.

For Bush, yesterday's meetings were the first opportunity to size up Olmert as a partner in the Middle East. Bush values personal relations with foreign leaders, and those who find chemistry with him often benefit. Aides called the visit a "getting to know you" summit with meetings in the Oval Office and the White House residence and a dinner.

Both sides said afterward the two got off to a good start. "The level of comfort between the two men, and the two governments, rose during the visit, and that was really the purpose of the visit," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under official ground rules.

During their public appearance together, the president and the prime minister both made nostalgic references to the first time they met in 1998, when Bush was governor of Texas and Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem.

"The meeting went very well in terms of creating the bond between the two leaders," said Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon. "They are on the same wavelength, sharing the same vision and strategic outlook."

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