Analysis: The phased approach to selling 'realignment'

Olmert knows that for his plan to succeed, it will need int'l recognition, legitimacy and support.

olmert good pic 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert good pic 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
The English name for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to determine the country's final borders by 2010 has gradually morphed from convergence to consolidation to the newest incarnation - realignment. But more than just the name has changed. In the nearly four months since Olmert unveiled in pre-election interviews his plan to unilaterally set Israel's eastern border, it has gone from a plan that he said would determine the country's permanent borders, to a plan - as he described it Tuesday in Washington while standing shoulder to shoulder with US President George Bush - that would set "secure borders" for Israel. The plan Olmert talked about in Washington was not for Israel to set its permanent borders by itself, but for Israel to establish its own secure borders behind which it could then live for quite some time until the Palestinians were ready and able to negotiate and implement a final status agreement. And the difference is more than just semantic nuance. In a pre-election interview with The Jerusalem Post in March, Olmert said very clearly that he hoped to set the country's permanent borders: "In the final analysis, my intention is that within four years we will get to Israel's permanent borders, whereby we will completely separate from the majority of the Palestinian population, and preserve a large and stable Jewish majority in Israel," he said. At that time, Olmert's aim was to get himself elected, and secure the largest majority possible. So in presenting the plan to the Israeli people, he rode the wave of the appeal of separation - Israelis over here, the Palestinians over there, and a state-of-the art fence separating the two. Separation, he realized, resonated strongly with a public fed up with more than five years of relentless terrorism. But separation is less appealing to Washington, where the more poetic idea of two-states living peacefully side-by-side still holds powerful emotional sway. This - not the stripped down, far less idealized notion of separation - is the ultimate goal of the road map. Olmert realizes full well that for his plan to have a chance of getting off the ground, let alone working, it will need international recognition, legitimacy and support. First from the US, and then from Europe. And to get this support, he will have to tweak what he told the Israeli public. So when speaking in Washington, Olmert's emphasis was not on separation or Israel determining its permanent borders, moves that would be interpreted as precluding the road map, but rather as something that would ultimately come to make the road map possible. The choice Olmert placed before Bush this week was either Mideast stagnation or supporting steps that - if the Palestinians prove themselves unable to meet the minimum requirements necessary to be a partner - could still ultimately bring the sides close to a two state solution. Olmert said that if Israel would reach the conclusion that despite overtures to the Palestinians "it is impossible to implement the principles of the road map through a negotiating process, we'll look for other ways to implement these principles, and to ultimately create a situation where there are secured borders for the state of Israel, with the population centers in the territories as part of a State of Israel, and with a contiguous territory that will allow the Palestinians to establish their own Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel." In other words, realignment comes not to bury the road map, but to push it forward. And Olmert emphasized in Washington on numerous occasions that he would exhaust all efforts to get the Palestinians to step up to the plate; to negotiate. Here, too, a major difference between the pre- and post-election Olmert emerged. Before the elections, Olmert said that he would not meet Abbas. "The PA is one authority, the minute the dominant force in the PA is Hamas, then why [meet Abbas]?" he told the Post in March. "We do not meet as two graduates from the same high school. There can only be a reason for a meeting if it serves a political purpose. If the government is a Hamas one, what political purpose can it serve?" In Washington, however, he dramatically changed his tune, referring repeatedly to Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority and pledging to meet with him. Why? Because this is what America wants to see. It wants to see the two men meet. It wants to see Olmert exhaust all efforts to find a Palestinian negotiating partner. And Olmert needs America for the plan to work. But he needs more than America. Olmert also needs Europe, and Europe is even keener on Abbas than the US. Which is why after selling the plan to his own people and winning the elections, after now going to Washington and getting Bush's support, Olmert's next major challenge - the next phase in pushing the plan forward - will be to get the Europeans on board. Olmert is expected to go to London and Paris in June, and to Berlin in July, and is likely to recalibrate his message there as well - stressing that the plan will do something the Europeans have wanted to see done for years: the removal of tens and thousands of settlers. He will also likely meet Abbas before making his European journey. Sources close to Olmert are not overly concerned about the negative reviews the prime minister's plan has so far received in Europe, saying that Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan was also widely dismissed in Europe as "another Sharon ploy" after he unveiled it at the end of 2003. What Olmert has not yet received from Washington, but which will be the topic of much of the diplomatic give and take between the two capitals in the weeks and moths ahead, is what the US will give Israel in return for realignment. Sharon, in exchange for disengagement, received the famous April 2004 Bush letter with what he viewed as commitments from the US that it would back Israel's position that Palestinians refugees can't return to pre-1967 Israel, and that Israel could retain major settlement blocs. Olmert did not yet extract any similar commitments from Bush - but he will continue to try. He will be looking primarily for three things:
  • US legitimacy for the West Bank line that Israel will draw and move behind.
  • US agreement that Israel can build in the large settlement blocs inside the security fence.
  • Backing from the US for Israeli military actions if Israel is attacked by Palestinians from West Bank land vacated under the plan. Armed with these types of commitments, Olmert will then sally forth and face the fourth - and likely most difficult - phase of his battle to press the plan forward: getting it through the Knesset.