JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert heads to Washington this weekend looking for a delicate diplomatic balance on his first official visit to his country's most important ally.
He'll try to reassure President Bush and members of Congress that Israel is still willing to sit down with Palestinian leaders for peace talks. But he'll also work to lay the foundation for U.S. support for his contentious plan to set Israel's borders unilaterally if talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, lead nowhere.
"His challenge will be to define with Bush what it would mean to have successful negotiations with Abu Mazen in such a way that, after sitting down and meeting with him, he can communicate back to the United States: I want the green light to go ahead with unilateral disengagement," said Yossi Alpher, co-director of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.org and former director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Olmert plans to shut down more remote Jewish settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank in exchange for absorbing the larger ones closer to Israel. He's suggested that he wants to begin enacting that plan early next year if there's no quick progress on resuscitating talks with the Palestinians. Abbas has warned Israel that enacting the West Bank plan without peace talks would create no stable peace.
The Bush administration has offered measured support for the West Bank pullout. U.S. officials make clear that they don't oppose the idea in principle, but want Olmert to exhaust all possible negotiations with Abbas before Israel acts on its own.
"We need answers before the president can make any decisions," a senior White House official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules imposed by the administration.
Olmert will meet Bush on Tuesday. He'll also address a joint session of Congress and meet with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Cabinet officials.
Israeli officials cast the trip primarily as a chance for Olmert to begin establishing his international credentials. The new prime minister is a seasoned politician but lacks the gravitas associated with his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, whose political career was brought to an abrupt end in January by a stroke.
As prime minister, Sharon eventually persuaded Bush to back last year's unilateral plan to pull all Israeli settlers and soldiers out of the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip.
Today in Gaza, Abbas and Hamas—the hard-line Islamist group that won control of the Palestinian Authority after January's parliamentary elections—have deployed rival security units that are vying for power, Israeli border closures and Palestinian political inaction have blocked economic revival and Palestinian militants and Israeli military forces exchange volleys across the northern border with Israel.
The Gaza pullout nevertheless officially ended Israel's 38 years of military rule over the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in the small territory. America's support was essential for Sharon, and Olmert is looking to follow the same path for the West Bank.
Olmert's meetings in Washington are primarily about building personal chemistry, and no dramatic announcements are expected. Still, the stakes for him "are extremely high," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center on Middle East affairs. "If he doesn't implement (his plan), his political future is bleak, as is his party's."
Nahum Barnea, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, wrote Friday in an open letter to Olmert: "You are going to meet the only man who can give you wings. Without him, you are liable to be a fleeting episode. Together with him, you can change the world."
Israeli officials understand that they won't win U.S. support until they give peace talks at least one more chance. But the United States and Israel appear to be at odds over how much legitimacy to bestow on Abbas now that Hamas militants, who refuse to recognize Israel, are in power.
America has been working with Abbas, a moderate, and trying to shore him up as an alternative to Hamas. Olmert and Israel have largely shunned Abbas. Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, called him irrelevant.
Olmert has made it clear that peace talks would lead nowhere unless Hamas leaders meet international demands that the group renounce terrorism and accept Israel as a neighbor.
"I am committed to negotiations with the Palestinians and respect Abu Mazen's position," Olmert said. "But it is important to remember that he represents the Palestinian Authority and is not a private individual. As long as the PA is in practice controlled by Hamas, we will find it difficult to advance diplomatic negotiations."
Faced with the U.S. push for talks, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Livni are planning to meet with Abbas on Sunday in Egypt during a World Economic Forum summit. That could pave the way for direct talks between Olmert and Abbas.
The United States is sensitive to charges in the Arab world that its financial and diplomatic isolation of Hamas is causing more suffering for the Palestinian people.
European officials are trying to finalize a temporary solution to provide some humanitarian aid. A formal European Union proposal is due Wednesday.
During a visit to Washington last week, Prince Saud al Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, said he'd argued strenuously against isolating Hamas. Rather, he said, the world should engage Hamas' leaders and convince them to join peace talks.
Saud predicted that an economic boycott of the Palestinians would backfire. If the West doesn't help, he said, "you are really taking away the real supporters of the peace movement. You are adding radicalization to the rank and file. And you are not harming the government."
One senior Western diplomatic official in the region said the players were trying to address that perception.
"It's a difficult balancing act here because we don't want to be supporting a government that doesn't meet these requirements (of the international community) but we don't want the people to suffer," the official said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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