Olmert Comes Calling

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President George W. Bush welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the Oval Office

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's first visit to the Bush White House was a sad reminder of just how little has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past six years. Like his predecessor Ariel Sharon, Olmert respectfully endorsed President Bush's "roadmap" to a two-state peace. He even accepted the President's urging — despite his obvious skepticism — to exhaust all possibilities of reaching a negotiated settlement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before embarking on his unilateral plans to redraw boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians. But, like Sharon, Olmert has little faith in the prospect of negotiations; just last Sunday he made clear that he sees Abbas as a lame duck who is unable to deliver.

Olmert was elected on a promise to move ahead with or without the Palestinians on his "convergence" plan, which would withdraw some of the outlying settlements in the West Bank while consolidating Israel's grip on the largest settlement blocs and unilaterally setting a new boundary between Israel and the Palestinians. While President Bush offered a lukewarm endorsement, suggesting that Olmert's plan "could lead to a two-state solution," he made clear that the U.S. preference is for that goal to be reached via negotiations. And the two sides appear to have agreed to repackage the proposals to avoid using the notion of a permanent border.

"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," said Bush.

By urging Olmert to try and negotiate a deal with Abbas before moving ahead on a unilateral basis, President Bush postpones a tricky political choice. Even if Abbas were able to negotiate a deal with Israel, it would only be a meaningful exercise if he had the consent of the Hamas-led government. And Bush himself has maintained that Hamas does not constitute a viable negotiating partner.

Currently, the U.S. and Israel are maintaining an economic blockade of Palestinian territories in the hope of forcing Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel. But the resulting deterioration of the humanitarian situation is fueling mounting chaos in Gaza as rival security forces battle for control over the streets — raising the specter of the complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority and even outright civil war.

Far from "convergence" or a two-state solution, such a collapse would force Israel to resume direct administrative control over the West Bank and Gaza. So, the U.S. and Israel are forced into an awkward back-pedaling posture, in which they're seeking ways of temporarily relieving some of the symptoms of the Palestinian social collapse without appearing to reduce the pressure on Hamas.

There was every indication from Olmert's first visit that he will inherit his predecessor's ties to the Administration. But it is a lot more difficult for the U.S. to endorse Olmert's plan than it was to back Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout. Sharon's exit from Gaza, whereby Israel withdrew to its 1967 border, was a move welcomed throughout the international community. But in the West Bank, Olmert's intention, revealed by the route of the security wall Israel is building, is to fold in huge settlement blocs on land occupied in 1967, bisecting the West Bank and cutting it off from East Jerusalem, as well as possibly maintaining an Israeli military corridor along the Jordan Valley. Whatever their internal disagreements, Palestinian leaders would easily agree on rejecting Olmert's map.

Israel's arrest Tuesday of a senior Hamas military commander in Ramallah suggests it wants to keep the focus on Hamas as a terror organization, but that may not be easy as Olmert would like to believe. Apparently aware of the danger of being isolated, the Hamas government appears to be moving towards accepting a version of the Arab League position of offering recognition of Israel within its 1967 borders. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, effectively offered Israel peace in exchange for a withdrawal to 1967 borders. True, he didn't actually use the term "peace," choosing the convoluted expression of a long-term "automatically renewed" truce instead, but it was the closest Hamas has come to offering a recognition of Israel and a two-state solution.

Hamas's own diplomatic offensive may make it more difficult for the West to sustain its isolation, particularly if the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in Gaza. But President Bush assured Olmert that the U.S. position to maintain the pressure on Hamas remains steady. Taken together with Bush's promises that the U.S. would defend Israel in the event of an Iranian attack, it was a clear sign that while Ariel Sharon, a frequent visitor to the Bush White House, has left Israel's political scene, his legacy has not. No matter what differences they may have, Israel and the U.S. will continue to coordinate their positions on all decisions that affect one another. And that means managing the next steps in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is a burden they'll have to share.