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Photo Courtesy: Eric Draper/White House
President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shake hands during Olmert´s first state visit to the White House, on May 23.

By Ron Kampeas
Taking a break from their five-hour session to address reporters Tuesday, the leaders appeared to have reached an accommodation.

Olmert said he would delay his march toward a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, something he had said earlier was all but inevitable because he did not see a credible Palestinian peace partner.

“I intend to exhaust every possibility to promote peace with the Palestinians according to the road map, and I extend my hand in peace to Mahmoud Abbas, the elected president of the Palestinian Authority,” the Israeli prime minister said, referring to the peace plan backed by the United States. “I hope he will take the necessary steps, which he committed to, in order to move forward.”

For his part, Bush warmly endorsed the possibility of unilateral action, as long as Olmert exhausted all other options.

“I would call them bold ideas,” Bush said, referring to the unilateral actions Olmert outlined. “These ideas could lead to a two-state solution if a pathway to progress on the road map is not open in the period ahead. His ideas include the removal of most Israeli settlements, except for the major Israeli population centers in the West Bank.”

It was the firmest endorsement to date of Olmert’s plan to go it alone should all else fail.

Emboldened by Bush’s endorsement, Olmert said the major settlements “would remain under Israeli control and become part of the state of Israel as part of the final-status agreement.”

That was the most unequivocal to-date statement signaling Olmert’s intention to annex the major Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Bush reiterated his commitment outlined in an April 14, 2004 letter, in which the United States recognized that some Jewish settlements were realities on the ground and would become part of Israel.

In a briefing to Hebrew-speaking reporters, including JTA, late Tuesday evening, Olmert said he did not get an outright American endorsement of his plan to extend Israel’s boundaries to include the major populations centers, where some 200,000 Jews live.

Another 70,000 settlers in more remote areas of the West Bank would be evacuated under Olmert’s plan, which is already meeting resistance from members of Olmert’s own government.

Olmert said he would embark on an international tour this summer to explain his plans to world leaders. He intends to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan in the region. He will then continue on to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Jacques Chirac of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The goal is to pressure Abbas into confronting Hamas and to prepare the ground for Israel’s unilateral actions should that effort fail, Olmert told reporters at Blair House, the Washington guest residence where he was staying.

The prime minister said he did not raise the issue of U.S. economic assistance in the wake of Israeli withdrawals from Gaza last summer and planned further withdrawals from the West Bank. He said it was “premature.”

On Wednesday, the prime minister addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, an honor afforded to few foreign leaders. In his speech, which was interrupted several times by warm applause and standing ovations, Olmert reiterated that he is ready to negotiate with Abbas, but would not entertain contacts with the Hamas-led Palestinian Cabinet until the group renounces terrorism and recognizes the State of Israel.

If negotiations fail, Olmert said to Congress, he is ready to conduct a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.

At the joint news conference on Tuesday, Bush and Olmert appeared to enjoy each other’s company. Later, the two leaders met at the Bush residence, along with Olmert’s wife, Aliza, without advisers — a sign that one goal of the session, to establish a bond, was a success.

“The meeting with Prime Minister Olmert really is, in many ways, a getting-to-know-you session,” Tony Snow, Bush’s press secretary, said just before Bush and Olmert met.

The two leaders also agreed on the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. “We’re determined that the Iranian regime must not gain nuclear weapons,” Bush said. “I told the prime minister what I’ve stated publicly before: Israel is a close friend and ally of the United States. And in the event of any attack on Israel, the United States will come to Israel’s aid.”

The last time Bush and Olmert met was in 1998, when Bush was the governor of Texas and Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem.

Olmert said he would meet with Abbas soon, reversing his earlier dismissals of the P.A. president as ineffectual. In a CNN interview Sunday, Olmert said the landslide victory of the Hamas terrorist group in Palestinian Authority elections in January profoundly undercut the authority of Abbas, a relative moderate who leads the rival Fatah Party.

“Mahmoud Abbas was deprived of all his powers,” Olmert said Sunday. “He is powerless. He is helpless. He is unable to even stop the minimal terror activities among the Palestinians, so how can he seriously negotiate with Israel and assume responsibility for the most major, fundamental issues that are in controversy between us and them?”

In that view, Olmert has a powerful ally: the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. Like Olmert, the House largely ignores Abbas as an alternative.

The provisions of the bill the House passed, which also severely limits humanitarian aid and restricts the movement of Palestinian officials in the United States, would outlive a Hamas government.

In his address to Congress, Olmert commended the House for passing a bill that cuts off assistance to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act “sends a firm, clear message that the United States of America will not tolerate terrorism in any form,” he said to a standing ovation.

He also praised Congress for legislation known as the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which would further isolate the Islamic republic.

The House bill restricting aid to the Palestinians, approved 361-37, split the pro-Israel community in Washington. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee welcomed its passage.

“Today Congress made it clear that Hamas’ decision to continue its support for terrorism has direct and immediate consequences,” said AIPAC, which lobbied hard for the bill.

Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom all opposed the bill, saying its restrictions would burden peacemaking. Peace Now said the bill “is an exercise in overreaching that will undercut American national security needs, Israeli interests and hope for the Palestinian people.”

The Bush administration, which believes the Hamas government might not live out the year, fears the bill would tie its hands in a region the president still hopes to transform before his departure from office.

Bush favors a Senate version of the bill that grants him greater leeway in dealing with the Palestinians. The Senate version, with 87 co-sponsors, is guaranteed passage, and will likely prevail as House and Senate work out a compromise.

Meanwhile, some of the tensions a further Israeli withdrawal would engender followed Olmert to Washington.

About 150 American Jews gathered outside the Capitol on Tuesday to protest any West Bank withdrawal.



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