Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to London this week did not come at the best of times.
The BBC's primetime TV news program introduced its item on his visit to 10 Downing Street with the harrowing footage of Huda Ghalia discovering her father's dead body on a Gaza beach. The assumption, at this time, was that Israel was clearly responsible for the deaths, and the BBC began its report with a warning to viewers that some of the images were very disturbing.
Huda was also filmed in mourning at the family home, hugging a huge doll donated by Western diplomats before being hugged herself by a somber-looking Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Her mother, meanwhile, called for revenge for the deaths of her family in a Gaza hospital bedside interview with a BBC reporter.
Not an auspicious backdrop then for Olmert's first visit to the United Kingdom as prime minister. But even with British media attention centering on the Gaza tragedy, Olmert came out his meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair brimming with satisfaction - and with good reason.
While British newspapers might differ over the success of his visit - The Times, in line with its editorial position which cautiously supports more Israeli unilateral moves, proclaimed "Blair risks Arab anger by backing Israeli plan to impose new border"; the Guardian, following its editorial line of demanding a negotiated settlement, insisted that "Blair refuses to back Olmert's West Bank plan" - Olmert himself was, rightly, in no doubt that he had achieved an important diplomatic victory.
INDEED, OLMERT could hardly have wished for more as, time after time in their joint Downing Street press conference, Blair insisted that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could only begin once the Palestinians had recognized, unconditionally, the right of Israel to exist; renounced the use of violence; and agreed to adhere to the road map. Only once these conditions had been met, Blair continued, could final-status negotiations begin.
While repeatedly stressing the advantages of reaching a negotiated final-status agreement - and no one can be in any doubt that a negotiated deal, in which all the conditions on either side are fully met, has to be better than a unilaterally imposed solution - the British prime minister went one step further than President George W. Bush's somewhat lukewarm support for further Israeli unilateral moves by saying that he sympathized with Jerusalem's plan to go it alone if negotiations failed.
"I want to see it move forwardâ€¦ What you cannot have is the situation where nothing happens. It just means that the situation continues to deteriorate," Blair told the assembled journalists. The status quo, the British prime minister importantly insisted, was not an option.
SHORT OF explicitly giving Israel the green light for a unilateral withdrawal, Blair could hardly have done more to provide Olmert with the beginning of the international support the Israeli premier is seeking for his realignment plan. Although he never said it, one has to assume that Blair, in his heart of hearts, knows that the Palestinians are, at least for the foreseeable future, incapable of meeting the basic preconditions for negotiations.
For just as the BBC report on Olmert's visit began with the tragic story of the Ghalia family, it ended ominously for anyone clinging to the belief that the PA is still a functioning government, with footage showing Fatah loyalists firing in the air as they set about torching Hamas-controlled buildings in Ramallah.
And it is not only Blair who is signaling a surprising willingness to back Olmert's position. The new British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, an unknown quantity in terms of her views on the Middle East, also followed suit. Although she told a parliamentary committee the day after the Blair-Olmert meeting that "unilateral action by the Israeli government is... very much second best. We would be reluctant to see such unilateral action," she also reminded the committee that the international community, initially, had had strong reservations about the Gaza withdrawal.
She then concluded, in a marker that will have been noted by Jerusalem, that there had been "later grudging recognition in the end that some of these were moves in the right direction."
IN FACT, in London, there is more than a grudging recognition that Israel might, once again, be forced to go it alone. But Olmert would be wise not to rush his hand. He should first of all wait and see what happens to Abbas's referendum proposal - even though it falls short of the basic, and non-negotiable Israeli demand for an unconditional recognition of the state of Israel - before making any concrete moves.
If Abbas wins, then the international community, as Blair made clear, will expect Israel to try and engage, seriously, with the Palestinian Authority. If the PA chairman loses, or is not a clear winner, then Olmert will have more freedom to strike out on his own.
The time for unilateral action is not yet ripe in the diplomatic field, but in his visit to London this week, Olmert planted an important seed.
The writer, a former editor of The Jerusalem Post, will be returning to Israel in the autumn as the London Jewish Chronicle's Middle East editor.
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