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In Initial Meeting, Olmert and Bush to Look at the Big Picture, Not Details

May 18, 2006
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When the photo-ops are over, Ehud Olmert and George Bush will settle down to discuss the big picture. In a meeting this week with Jewish leaders a week ahead of the Israeli prime minister’s arrival, President Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, kept stressing that “strategy, not tactics” would define the summit, participants said.

It was a sign that the administration is wary of committing itself to nitty-gritty details until it has a better understanding of where Olmert is heading with his “convergence” plan to unilaterally withdraw from much of the West Bank.

At about the same time as Hadley was briefing some 30 Jewish leaders Monday, U.S. Jewish officials touring Israel were warning Olmert and other Israeli officials not to make specific aid requests.

“I would not anticipate” an aid request at this stage, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA from Israel, where he was leading a delegation meeting Israeli leaders. “The purpose of the meeting is to establish a relationship to gain an idea of what the prime minister has in mind.”

Bush and Olmert are meeting Tuesday. The next day, Olmert addresses a rare joint meeting of Congress.

The cost of Olmert’s projected withdrawal from more than 70 settlements and the resettlement of an estimated 60,000 Israelis will be from $10 billion to $25 billion, according to reports.

Olmert is unlikely to come to Bush with hand outstretched, but he needs solid commitments for some quid pro quo from the Americans if he is to sell withdrawal to Israelis. The withdrawal last year from the Gaza Strip so far has been followed by the election of the Hamas terrorist group to power in the Palestinian Authority and an intensification of rocket attacks from Gaza. Israelis are likely to be skeptical of further withdrawals, especially from the West Bank, which is much closer to Israeli population centers.

Beyond cash, the Americans could offer Olmert support for his redrawn borders — a recognition of Israeli sovereignty over some settlements that would go beyond the vague “realities on the ground” that Bush cited in his April 14, 2004, letter to Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon.

Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East negotiator and now an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that even if Olmert doesn’t ask for concessions upfront, he has to make clear his need for U.S. backing further down the line.

Ross counseled Olmert not to ask Bush for a commitment, but to warn him, “If I don’t get enough from you and the international community, it’s going to be hard to pull this off.”

In any case, the United States is adamantly opposed to directly funding resettlement because it has warned Israel for nearly four decades that settlement was a mistake. However, it’s ready to help Israel cushion the blow indirectly.

Last year, Israel asked the United States for between $1 billion and $2 billion to develop the Negev and Galilee regions, where many of the 9,000 evacuated settlers were likely to move

The Bush administration asked Israel to postpone the request in the wake of the devastating hurricane season in the southern U.S. Israel has yet to resubmit the request, but economic hardships for many Americans have only intensified, and asking for a West Bank assistance package 10 times the Gaza amount is seen as unlikely at a time when gasoline is topping $3 a gallon in the United States.

David Makovksy, a Washington Institute analyst who recently authored an assessment of Olmert’s withdrawal plan, said Olmert could suggest “creative burden sharing” with the international community. European nations, for instance, could offer to pay Israel to evacuate settlements and ready them for Palestinian use.

“Without economic support and political backing, the bottom line is, there is no disengagement,” he said.

Yet Hadley and his deputy, Elliott Abrams, made clear in their 40-minute meeting with Jewish leaders that now was not the time for details.

Participants said the meeting was perfunctory and more formal than previous meetings, which were held around a conference table. This time, the Jewish leaders were seated in an auditorium and had time only for a few questions after a short lecture by Hadley.

Jewish leaders were especially eager to elucidate the nuances between the Israeli, administration and congressional views on how to assist the Palestinians while isolating the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government.

A bill currently under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives would cut off all assistance to the Palestinian Authority and severely limit humanitarian assistance through non-governmental organizations. The United States has led efforts to isolate the Palestinian Authority since the January election of Hamas, a terrorist group that rejects Israel’s existence.

The Bush administration, which so far has kept the bill from reaching the full House, reportedly favors greater flexibility on humanitarian assistance and wants Israel to consider using P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate who leads Fatah, as a conduit for assistance.

Some Jewish groups in the room, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, favor the tough House measures; others, including the Israel Policy Forum and the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, favor greater flexibility.

Hadley and Abrams would not be drawn out on details, except to flatly reject a French proposal to pay Palestinian Authority salaries.

Hadley said that the Abbas option was basically Israel’s decision.

Three Fatah officials were in Washington last week lobbying for that option, and said Israel should negotiate with Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has no Hamas representation.

Hamas would not obstruct such negotiations, said Nabil Amr, a former P.A. Cabinet minister, because it desperately needs the help of the more experienced Fatah leadership.

“Day by day, we see and receive messages from Hamas that they are not able to run modern institutions and society,” he said.

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