What Olmert heard

IN ITS PUBLIC phases, the Washington debut of Ehud Olmert as Israeli prime minister seemed a success. His address to a joint meeting of Congress yesterday was received warmly. His press conference Tuesday with President Bush suggested an affinity between the two leaders. Olmert's domestic audience could assume that his plan to withdraw from outlying West Bank settlements and unilaterally establish permanent borders for Israel had not met with an outright rebuff.

As usual, however, it was in Olmert's private talks with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the important understandings were reached -- or not reached. About these decisive transactions there are only veiled hints in the leaders' public statements and in carefully crafted, selective accounts doled out by officials of both governments.

These hints point to a cooperative atmosphere but also a healthy administration skepticism about Olmert's still-preliminary proposal to draw Israel's final borders unilaterally. The most telling sign of Bush's reluctance to endorse Olmert's plan came in a statement Bush made standing alongside Olmert in the East Room of the White House.

``While any final-status agreement will be only achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes and no party should prejudice the outcome of negotiations on a final-status agreement," Bush said, ``the prime minister's ideas could be an important step toward the peace we both support."

This was a polite way of warning Israel that even though it may have no Palestinian negotiating partner at present, and even if Bush eventually accepts a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from select West Bank settlements, the unchanging US position is that a final-status peace agreement must be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. A sound corollary of this stance is that Israel must not undertake any unilateral measure that could bar a negotiated agreement on permanent two-state borders.

The sage principle Bush was affirming is that any division of the land must be approved and accepted by both sides.

This means Olmert cannot come to Washington to negotiate a final-status agreement. The road map for Mideast peace that was sponsored by the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia as well as the United States -- and that Bush continues to commend to Israel as the unaltered basis of US policy -- requires Israel to negotiate its permanent borders only with Palestinians, not with Americans.

If this is the message Olmert takes away from his Washington trip, it will have been a worthwhile visit for him, for Israel, and for the Palestinians. 

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