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Olmert says Israel `cannot wait for the Palestinians forever'

WASHINGTON—Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a joint session of Congress Wednesday that Israel will draw its own borders in the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority proves incapable of being a partner in peace efforts.

"We cannot wait for the Palestinians forever," Olmert told the gathering of House and Senate members. "Our deepest wish is to build a better future for our region, hand in hand with a Palestinian partner, but if not, we will move forward, but not alone."

Olmert's address echoed what he told President Bush Tuesday at the White House. Bush said he considered Olmert's plan for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank a fallback plan and a bold idea "that could be an important step that we both support."

Bush's embrace of the plan shifts longstanding U.S. policy that negotiation, not unilateral action, is the only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several lawmakers and Middle East policy experts said the shift isn't a major change in U.S. policy and merely reflects the difficult realities on the ground following the election of a Palestinian government last January dominated by Hamas, a militant Islamic group dedicated to Israel's destruction.

"What are you supposed to do with Hamas? They reject Israel's right to exist and support terror," said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. ambassador who served as point man and negotiator on the Israeli-Palestinian matters during the Clinton and elder Bush administrations. "The shift was Israel's move. Here, it's acknowledging there aren't any other games in town and the status quo is unacceptable."

In Israel, leaders were encouraged by Bush's support for Olmert's unilateral stand. Before the prime minister's trip to Washington, Israeli officials sought to downplay expectations that Bush would offer support for Olmert's plan.

But on Wednesday, Olmert ally Dov Weisglass told Army Radio that the trip had already "met all our expectations."

"There is an understanding between Israel and the United States that if talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fail, Israel can begin unilateral moves according to the `convergence plan,'" Weisglass said.

Olmert has consistently voiced skepticism about Abbas' ability to negotiate a new peace deal, going so far as to deride him as powerless and helpless on the eve of his trip to Washington. And the Israeli leader has made it clear that Hamas must renounce its call for the violent destruction of Israel before he talks to the Palestinian leadership.

"There can't be a peace process unless the Palestinians engage in peace," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said after a meeting between Olmert and Jewish members of Congress. "The first objective of a Palestinian leader is to stop terrorism."

Olmert thanked the House of Representatives for passing a measure Tuesday night that would ban aid to the Palestinian Authority and limit indirect humanitarian assistance to private groups operating in Gaza and the West Bank.

Recounting that Israel achieved peace accords with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late King Hussein of Jordan, Olmert said he's willing to extend a hand to Abbas, but only after he reins in terrorists within the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian government recognizes Israel's right to exist.

"With a genuine Palestinian partner for peace, I believe we can reach an agreement on all the issues that divide us," he said. "Our past experience shows us it is possible to bridge the differences between our two peoples. I know this, because we have done it before in our peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan."

Olmert praised Bush for waging a global war on terrorism. He had harsh words for Iran, calling its attempts to become a nuclear power "a dark and gathering storm casting its shadow over the world."

"We deeply appreciate America's leadership on this issue and the strong bipartisan conviction that a nuclear-armed Iran is an intolerable threat to the peace and security of the world," he said. "It cannot be permitted to materialize."

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-OLMERT

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