Israel's 'Realignment'
Ehud Olmert's hope to win U.S. support for a new Israeli border offers President Bush both opportunity and peril.

Friday, May 26, 2006

THOUGH THEY paid lip service to continued Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in effect inaugurated an entirely different process at their White House meeting Tuesday -- one in which Israel will parley with the United States about the new borders it intends to draw for itself. Despite his promise to pursue talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Olmert has made clear that he doesn't believe Israel will be able to work with the Palestinian Authority anytime soon. Even if a credible partner appeared, Mr. Olmert might prove reluctant. Like his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, he opposes some of the compromises Israel would have to make to achieve a peace settlement.

Mr. Olmert has now won Mr. Bush's de facto consent to pursue a unilateral "realignment," in which Israel would draw a border of its own choosing in the West Bank, dismantle some of the settlements that lie beyond it and thereby "guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state with the borders it desires," as the prime minister put it. Mr. Bush called these ideas "bold," adding that they "could lead to a two-state solution." But as Mr. Olmert acknowledged, there is one crucial condition: Israel cannot successfully impose its plan on the Palestinians unless it has "the comprehensive support of the United States and the international community."

That means that in the remainder of his term, Mr. Bush will have the opportunity to encourage an Israeli redeployment that would open the way toward the Palestinian state he called for four years ago. But he could also cripple the prospects for that settlement if he provides a U.S. imprimatur for a realignment that disregards essential Palestinian interests. Left to his own calculations, Mr. Olmert probably would settle on such a strategy. According to reports in the Israeli press, he is thinking of dismantling only a small fraction of the West Bank settlements that lie beyond the boundary fence Israel is constructing, which means that settlers and the army would remain in the Palestinian territory indefinitely. He also intends to annex all of Jerusalem's Old City and most of its Arab neighborhoods, even though a previous Israeli government recognized that a peace settlement will require divided sovereignty in the city.

Mr. Bush has already accepted the idea that large settlement blocks near the present border will be incorporated into Israel. But U.S. officials in the past have expressed skepticism about parts of the emerging Israeli plan, including the extent of West Bank territory to be taken. Those points should be pressed: The closer Mr. Olmert comes to adopting the territorial map that was negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians after the Camp David talks of 2000, the better will be the chances that the realignment will lead to a real peace. Mr. Bush said Tuesday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace "will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes, and no party should prejudice the outcome of negotiations." As his administration plunges into what will probably be months of detailed discussions with Israel about the realignment plan, it will be imperative to defend those principles.

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