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Olmert's First Official Visit to Washington: Setting the Agenda As Prime Minister

Posted: May 19, 2006

Even though Ehud Olmert's first visit to Washington as Prime Minister, scheduled for May 21 to 24, is being billed as less a substantive one and more a get-to-know-you opportunity for President George W. Bush and the Israeli Prime Minister, it provides an occasion to look at where the two governments stand on key matters important to both.

Three issues stand out: the Olmert government's convergence plan for the
West Bank; Iran
's move toward a nuclear weapon; and Hamas' rule over the Palestinian Authority.

Prime Minister Olmert will be in Washington at a time when relations between the U.S. and Israel are strong on many levels, starting at the top and reaching down to public opinion.  On the big issues of the day, the two governments are philosophically in sync – supporting further Israeli withdrawal, preventing Iran from discharging nuclear weapons, and isolating Hamas unless it fundamentally changes.  However, in working out all these matters, there will be obstacles and differences that need to be overcome.

 

West Bank Convergence 

 

On the convergence plan, the Israeli government has clearly said that it wants and needs U.S. support.  Recall that a critical ingredient in former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's completing the disengagement from Gaza was his reaching agreement with the President.  That was embodied in a letter from the White House spelling out not only support for disengagement but rejection of the Palestinian claim of the "right of return" and support for retaining the major settlement blocs in any final agreement.

 

Olmert undoubtedly would like to see something similar, or perhaps more regarding his plan for the West Bank, but there are obstacles that will have to be overcome.  First is the question as to whether Israel has a peace partner.  While Olmert has stated that he will give the Palestinians a period of time to demonstrate they are interested in peace and ready to take on the terrorists, the weight of his statements has focused on the absence of a partner, especially with Hamas in charge, and the need for unilateral action in the West Bank.  The Administration is likely to want a greater exploration as to whether in fact Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can be that partner for peace.

 

Secondly, Olmert has referred to his plan, which will include removing many settlements and Israeli authority from significant parts of the West Bank, as one establishing Israel's final borders.  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. would be ready to consider any unilateral withdrawal by Israel to be deemed a permanent solution.  Therefore, the question will arise as to whether the Prime Minister will adjust his plan in a way that can attract a positive American response by labeling convergence as an important step in a process that will hopefully end in successful negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.  This, of course, would raise domestic problems for Olmert, but it may be the only way he could get U.S. approval.

 

Thirdly, is the question of defining settlement blocs: Which settlements would remain, which would not.  There seems to be an understanding that at least Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim would be included.  But even for those settlement blocs that would be included, there are issues of the extent of the bloc and how it affects Palestinians.  There is much here as well that will require rounds of conversation between Jerusalem and Washington.

 

 

Iranian Nuclear Issue

 

The level of concern about the Iranian nuclear issue continues to rise in both Israel and the United States, as the international community seems largely stalled by Russia and China's unwillingness to approve a strong Security Council resolution.

 

Israel is in a bind on this issue in its dealings with Washington.  On the one hand, it has argued, correctly so, that this is not Israel's issue alone, that Iran attaining a nuclear capability is a threat to Europe and a major destabilizer throughout the Middle East.  In addition, there is a reluctance to feed into the perspective that Israel is asking the U.S. to do things that are primarily in Israel's interest.  Thus, when President Bush on several occasions said that the U.S. would defend Israel against any Iranian threats, there was some unhappiness that the Administration might have inadvertently left the impression that the U.S. was taking on Iran not for its own sake, but to help Israel.

 

The other side of this coin, however, is that Iran is very much becoming an existential threat to Israel.  The combination in Iran of a nuclear capability, along with a President and followers who manifest a lunatic theological hatred of Israel, makes it impossible for Israel to see anything but mortal threat looming.  Therefore, it is disingenuous, unsustainable, and after a while might not even be wise for Israel not to say it directly and up front.  Maybe only then will the world take Iran's actions more seriously, not because of recognition of their own interests but out of fear of what Israel would be ready to do to protect itself.

 

This is a dilemma that Israel and the U.S. will face as part of the challenge that Iran poses.

 

Hamas: Maintaining Unity Against Terror

 

The great challenge facing both the U.S. and Israel regarding Hamas is how to prevent erosion of the terms established for isolating the organization.  Announcements that China, Sweden, Norway and Russia, among others, are meeting with Hamas officials are discouraging.

 

Israel understands that humanitarian concerns are not only important on their own terms but can be used as an excuse by some in the international community to justify softening their position on Hamas.  Israel, therefore, is looking for ways to avoid a humanitarian crisis without providing legitimacy for Hamas or providing so much "humanitarian" aid that Hamas will be able to claim it is sustaining the Palestinian people without conceding any of its anti-Israel ideology.

 

Potential issues that could arise between the U.S. and Israel include the question of how to deal with Mahmoud Abbas, with reports that the U.S. is seeking to strengthen Abbas as a counterweight to Hamas.  Israel might not oppose this in principle but will be concerned about how it will play out in ways that will ignore the reality that Hamas is the Palestinian government today.

 

On financial matters, one area of possible disagreement may be on the issue of the taxes that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians.  This is not the first time that Israel has withheld turning this money over to the Palestinians.  When Arafat was supporting the violence against Israel the money was withheld without major protests. Today, however, the combination of humanitarian concerns together with the argument that the money is due to the Palestinians may carry more weight.  Israel's logic that the transfer of such funds is predicated on the Oslo process, which Hamas has rejected, and that such monies will enhance the terrorist Hamas are legitimate ones, but they may be resisted in Washington.

 

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