Olmert to seek int'l support for West Bank withdrawal

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 06-Mar-06 | Author: Aluf Benn| Source: Ha'aretz

Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sits next to the empty chair of ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem March 5, 2006.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is planning to enlist international support for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, if he wins the elections. Olmert believes that the first objective of the next government will be to create a supportive international environment for implementing Israel's national goals: setting its borders and ensuring a Jewish majority.

Olmert will try to persuade the American administration and the key players in the international community that unless Hamas alters its positions, they must support a unilateral Israeli move to determine the border in the West Bank. In his view, Israel has managed to muster broad international support for the conditions it imposed on the Hamas government, and this must be kept up until after the elections. Only then will it begin to promote the unilateral initiative.

Since the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, Olmert has been referring less and less to the "road map" peace plan. Some of his advisers told him to stick with that plan, which enjoys American support and is accepted in the international community as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. But Olmert thinks he would make a fool of himself were he to continue talking about the road map, as though the political circumstances had not changed following the Palestinian polls.

The United States is beginning to rethink its Middle East policy, in the wake of the blow the administration sustained in the Palestinian elections: the Americans pressured Israel and PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas to hold the elections as scheduled, and thus brought about Hamas' rise to power. U.S. support for a unilateral Israeli move could be construed as a necessary correction of the mistake made with the elections.

The new American thinking comes across in today's column by Jim Hoagland, The Washington Post's chief foreign policy commentator. According to Hoagland, in view of Hamas' victory, the Bush administration should concentrate for now on attainable goals - first and foremost, support for an Israeli withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, along the lines of Ariel Sharon's disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

Hoagland suggests setting "de facto frontiers for a two-state solution," based on the Clinton plan from late 2000 (which talked about Israel annexing settlement blocs in exchange for land, and about dividing Jerusalem on an ethnic basis). He calls on the Bush administration to push for a solution of this sort, in which the separation line would be close to the 1967 borders.

Hoagland cites former U.S. secretary of state George Schultz, who told him it is necessary to acknowledge the Oslo and Camp David failures and correct them. According to Schultz, "the only thing the Palestinians have at this point to offer the Israelis is a willingness to participate in constructing a secure environment. But if the Palestinians won't commit to that and the Israelis can produce that outcome themselves through security barriers and other means," negotiations become pointless.

"There are times when it is best not to try to get people to agree on a finality," Schultz said.

According to senior political sources, in return for the next disengagement in the West Bank, Israel will ask the U.S. to recognize the withdrawal line - apparently to be based on, but not identical to, the separation fence route - as an international border. This would mean U.S. recognition for annexing the settlement blocs of Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel, based on President Bush's letter of April 2004, which acknowledged the "facts on the ground" created by the settlement blocs.

Olmert thinks that besides the blocs, Israel should control the Jordan Valley and Jewish holy sites. The senior sources ventured that the American administration would refuse to give Israel guarantees on the matter of Jerusalem, considered the most sensitive topic in any permanent agreement.

The defense establishment is in favor of a unilateral move that would include completing the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and another pullout in the West Bank.