Olmert's Odyssey

Selling convergence to a Hamas-wary world.

bush olmert back 88 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
bush olmert back 88 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel's new prime minister Ehud Olmert embarked on the traditional White House pilgrimage within weeks of taking office, wowed Congress and impressed the US media, but returned to Jerusalem in late May surprisingly empty-handed, his flagship pullout policy in limbo.

On subsequent treks to Cairo and Amman in June, the Israeli premier fared little better. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was firm that nothing should be done outside of negotiations with the Palestinians, while Jordan's King Abdullah feared that the chaos spawned by a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank could destabilize his regime.

None of this would overly trouble Olmert were he not coming off an election campaign built solely around "convergence" - his grand plan for vacating most of Judea/Samaria and setting Israel's final borders by 2010, with or without the Palestinians.

Olmert originally hoped to sell President George W. Bush on the plan, repackaged as "realignment." But in pre-summit spin, his aides insisted the president wanted to get acquainted first, not discuss details of another disengagement. Olmert duly scaled back his expectations and his plan, correcting the media on the way over that only 20 to 30 isolated settlements would be uprooted, not the 70 widely reported.

He then received a warm welcome at the White House, but not the words he flew half way around the world to hear.

Olmert was looking for a reiteration of the president's readiness to accept the permanence of Israel's main settlement blocs, first intimated in his April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon. He did not get it.

Instead, Bush may have even backtracked, calling Olmert's plan a "bold initiative" but stressing that "no party should prejudice the outcome of final negotiations on a final-status agreement." He also refused to entertain an Israeli request for aid to cover the enormous costs of a West Bank withdrawal.

Appearing before a joint session of Congress, Olmert's natural gift for oratory sparkled in a speech co-authored by Elie Wiesel. Not yet giving up, he contended that "realignment" would be a process to allow Israel to secure the future of a Jewish, democratic state without being held hostage to Palestinian terrorism and intransigence.

Meantime, Conservatives in Washington dismissed realignment for other reasons. Former CIA chief James Woolsey argued in the Wall Street Journal that the Gaza withdrawal had bolstered Palestinian terror militias, brought Hamas into power and undermined US interests. "Creating a West Bank that looks like today's Gaza would be many times the nightmare," he warned.

Returning to Israel, Olmert found similar doubts taking root at home. Latest opinion polls indicate that, in the absence of US support, the Israeli public is in no rush to vacate Judea/Samaria. Separation from the Palestinians? Yes. But few are ready to pay the steep financial and emotional price of uprooting more settlements. Fewer still want to repeat the failed experiment of Gaza by hastily creating yet another security vacuum for jihadists to fill.

Even inside Olmert's government, there are serious rifts over the annual budget bill that must soon pass the Knesset, leaving the coalition perhaps too brittle to forge ahead with an upheaval 10 times more taxing than the Gaza disengagement.

European leaders have also weighed in, cautioning that they are adamantly against Israel drawing borders on its own.

In Cairo and Amman, Olmert promised his Arab hosts to give talks a chance, but added that he views Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas as too weak to deliver a deal. With no Palestinian partner in sight, he said he would not wait long before taking unilateral steps in Israel's best interests. But will he?

Hemmed in, the new Israeli premier has stopped speaking about setting permanent borders within four years, and has reluctantly agreed to meet with Abbas soon, despite his reservations and the risks involved. At the same time, he has engaged the settler movement's leaders in talks aimed at a smooth removal of 24 unauthorized outposts in exchange for solidifying the "consensus" settlement blocs.

In a best-case scenario for Olmert, he might be able to orchestrate a less sweeping pullback to positions coordinated with both Abbas and the settler council. But that seems highly unlikely anytime soon, as does the international community's preference for a negotiated two-state solution. In a strange twist, everyone knows the Israelis are actually needed in the West Bank for now, and that setting it adrift is an instant formula for a failed terror state.

Given all the divergence over convergence, Olmert's odyssey over Israel's final borders may not be ended when the next occupant of the White House hosts Israel's premier for a "get acquainted" meeting sometime after 2008.

The writer is editor of the ICEJ News Service; www.icej.org.