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Olmert and Bush Meet in the Middle, Agree on Unilateral Moves As Second Best

One quality President Bush was looking for in Ehud Olmert during their marathon meeting this week was how well Israel’s new leader is able to stop, breathe and listen. Bush administration officials, while clearly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, want to slow down a process that seems to be careening out of control, both in the region and in the halls of Congress.

Taking a break from their five-hour session to address reporters Tuesday, the leaders appeared to have come to 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 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.

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

The two men appeared to enjoy each other’s company and Bush said the rest of their meeting would be held without advisers — a sign that one goal of the session, to establish a bond, was a resounding 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.

In fact, the provisions of the bill the House passed, which also severely limit humanitarian aid and restrict the movement of Palestinian officials in the United States, would outlive a Hamas government.

The bill, 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 would rather Congress keep out of the matter. Knowing that’s out of the question, however, he has favored 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 in the House-Senate conference.

Olmert has made no secret of his preference for congressional action; he was slated to address both houses on Wednesday in a rare appearance by a foreign leader, and his top diplomats have endorsed the House bill.

Olmert also was due to meet with Jewish leaders Wednesday afternoon.

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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