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Israeli Prime Minister Urges U.S. to Back Border Plan

May 24, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Israel’s new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, came to Washington this week seeking U.S. backing for the plan on which he won election eight weeks ago: to unilaterally redraw Israel’s border with the Palestinian West Bank.

His most important meeting came yesterday, with President Bush at the White House. Olmert outlined his plan to finish building the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, withdraw 60,000 Jewish settlers from isolated outposts beyond the barrier, and permanently annex the larger settlement blocs with some 175,000 residents.

Olmert described his plan at a press conference after the meeting.

EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel: This process of realignment would reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, ensure territorial contiguity for the Palestinians, and guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state with the borders it desires.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush praised Olmert’s vision, but stopped short of endorsing a unilateral redrawing of the Israeli-Palestinian border.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Today, Prime Minister Olmert shared with me some of his ideas. I would call them bold ideas. These ideas could lead to a two-state solution if a pathway to progress on the road map is not opened in the period ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: The president urged Olmert first to pursue a negotiated settlement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe — and Prime Minister Olmert agrees — that a negotiated final-status agreement best serves both the Israelis and the Palestinians and the cause of peace.

So our preferred option, of course, is there to be a negotiated settlement. On the other hand, as the prime minister said, that if he’s unable to find a partner in peace, if nothing can go forward, he is willing to think about ways to advance the process forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Olmert said he would try to negotiate with Abbas, even though the radical Hamas Party now dominates the Palestinian government. But he warned he would only wait so long.

EHUD OLMERT: I intend to exhaust every possibility to promote peace with the Palestinians, according to the road map. Despite our sincere desire for negotiations, we cannot wait indefinitely for the Palestinians to change.

We cannot be held hostage by a terrorist entity which refuses to change or to promote dialogue. If we come to the conclusion that no progress is possible, we will be compelled to try a different route.

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ANNOUNCER: Mr. Speaker, the prime minister of Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, Olmert was greeted by a rousing reception on Capitol Hill, where yesterday the House voted to eliminate virtually all funds to private aid groups working with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Before a joint session of Congress, the prime minister made this offer to Abbas.

EHUD OLMERT: From this podium today, I extend my hand in peace to Mahmoud Abbas, the elected president of the Palestinian Authority.

MARGARET WARNER: But he had harsh words for Abbas’ Palestinian rival, Hamas.

Olmert’s visit comes amid renewed clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Gaza and, today, the West Bank. There’s also been fighting between the security forces of the two main Palestinian factions: Abbas’ Fatah Party and Hamas.

The clashes intensified recently after the Hamas-led government deployed a new 3,000-member paramilitary force into the streets of Gaza. At the same time, living conditions in the Palestinian territories continue to deteriorate after Israel and major Western donors froze all tax revenues and aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Finding what Olmert needed

Daniel Kurtzer
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel
[Olmert] was looking for the kind of warmth, the body language, the images that get sent back to Israel that suggest to the Israeli people that his personal relationship with the president is sound.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on all of this, we turn to Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. He's now a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

And Khalil Jahshan, former president of the National Association of Arab Americans, he now lectures in international affairs at Pepperdine University.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Ambassador Kurtzer, beginning with you, how did you read the exchanges and the body language between President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert? Do you think that Olmert got what he wanted from this visit on the Israeli-Palestinian front?

DANIEL KURTZER, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel: Well, I think, Margaret, that he got exactly what he wanted. Even though these visits are very well-scripted, Olmert wanted three things.

He wanted an endorsement of sorts of his disengagement plan, and I think the president's statements, even though they were caveated, gave him what he needed to move ahead.

Secondly, he got a strong statement from the president about the need to deter Iran from going nuclear.

And, third, he was looking for the kind of warmth, the body language, the images that get sent back to Israel that suggest to the Israeli people that his personal relationship with the president is sound. And I think he can go home firm in the belief that he achieved all three of those objectives.

A unilateral green light?

Khalil Jahshan
National Association of Arab Americans
[A]s a matter of fact, some of [Olmert's] critics in Israel already voiced their opinion, in that they felt that he succumbed to pressure on this issue, that he won't be able to fulfill the promises he made during the election campaign...

MARGARET WARNER: But on this disengagement plan, did you feel -- in terms of the unilateral, the threat to do it unilaterally, or the promise he made to voters, do you think Bush was giving him a red light, an amber light, or a green light there?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, I think the president was not asked to give a full endorsement, and therefore he didn't have to. He certainly would have told Olmert privately that he would like to see a serious effort made to engage with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. And he'd like to see that effort try to reach fruition.

But the president is going to be realistic. The road map has not been implemented even in better conditions than we have now, with Hamas in power. And therefore the president's use of the words "bold" and his recognition of the fact that, if the bilateral process doesn't work, the prime minister had told him that he may move unilaterally, would suggest that this is not just a yellow light; this is yellow flashing green.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you read it, Khalil Jahshan?

KHALIL JAHSHAN, Former President, National Association of Arab Americans: Well, the judgment on these types of highly scripted summits are -- basically, this type of judgment is in the eye of the beholder. I mean, the Olmert camp has declared victory, that they got 100 percent of what they want. And basically the administration is saying they have applied brakes on certain issues that were of concern to them.

I think the main issue that was of concern definitely was the issue of the unilateral policy, or the realignment idea, that the Israeli prime minister talked about. He definitely got what he wanted, in terms of the photo-op, you know, the blessings, the chemistry, if you will, with the American leadership that every new prime minister in Israel has traditionally sought to establish his bona fides in the eyes of the Israeli public.

But in regards to the realignment, I don't think he got really what he wanted, but he was advised in advance directly by the administration and indirectly by some leaders in the Jewish community and others in the think-tank community, at least here in Washington, that maybe this is not the time to do that.

The administration is not willing to give its unconditional blessing to that, because they still...

MARGARET WARNER: To the unilateral aspect of it?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: To the unilateral aspect of it, because the administration still believes, rightly or wrongly, that there is still some life left in the road map, and they would like for him to spend the next six to nine months to 12 months trying to explore that, which he committed to do.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you feel that, as a result of this visit, Olmert is now -- I don't want to say under pressure, but now has committed himself to more vigorously pursue negotiations than he was before the visit?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Clearly. And as a matter of fact, some of his critics in Israel already voiced their opinion, in that they felt that he succumbed to pressure on this issue, that he won't be able to fulfill the promises he made during the election campaign, and that the U.S. basically applied brakes to his plans.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Kurtzer, how serious do you think Prime Minister Olmert is about the prospects of negotiating with Abbas?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, I think Olmert is most serious about his determination to draw Israel's boundaries during the course of his term as prime minister.

I don't think he has a lot of optimism that Abbas has the political strength at home to be a real partner in negotiations. The Israelis know Mahmoud Abbas well, and they respect the fact that he opposes violence. He has spoken out against it.

But, on the other hand, it's not an Abbas-led government; it's a Hamas-led government. And it will be very challenging for him to articulate a position that Hamas then would undermine.

So I think Olmert's going to be realistic. He will do, over the next nine months, what he has committed to the president, and that is reach out to Abbas, extend his hand, as he said.

But at the same time, he's going to get his government into advanced stages of planning for what will be a very complicated set of withdrawal plans, moving Israeli settlers, settlements and the Israeli military. We saw how challenging it was when Gaza was evacuated; the West Bank is going to be ten-fold as difficult.

Searching for a negotiating ally

Daniel Kurtzer
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel
You have to recall 2003. Abbas was prime minister. The road map didn't succeed. There was time after Abbas was elected president when major changes could have been effected in Palestinian policy, and it didn't occur.

MARGARET WARNER: Is Mahmoud Abbas, Khalil Jahshan, is he up for this? And does he have the standing, given the fact that Hamas controls, not only the legislature, but the cabinet at this point? Does he even have the standing to negotiate a deal that would stick?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Of course he does. And if you read between the lines, in terms of even some of the statements that came out of Hamas' camp even today, that they are establishing some sort of a task force, Palestinian task force, that is diverse, representing all the different political perspectives, to kind of give the credibility to the president to pursue, if there is any serious offer from the...

MARGARET WARNER: But they're not against this?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: They're not against it. But you see the problem is, I think -- with all due respect -- Mr. Olmert is speaking from both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he extended his hand of peace to Mr. Abbas, to Abu Mazen; yet, he has been undermining him every step of the way.

I mean, even as recently as yesterday, he said he's too weak to deal with and he is not a serious partner. So he's either a serious partner or not, one of the two. I think it's time for Mr. Olmert to make up his mind.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Dan Kurtzer, do you think that -- does Olmert see Abbas as, in fact, a strong enough and credible enough partner to actually make a deal with or is he going to go through the motions, that is Prime Minister Olmert, because he promised President Bush he would do so and he needs to show that at least he tried?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, I think he's going to have to demonstrate to at least the president that he's done more than go through the motions. But, realistically, he can't be very optimistic that Abbas will muster the courage to do now what he has not been able to do before.

You have to recall 2003. Abbas was prime minister. The road map didn't succeed. There was time after Abbas was elected president when major changes could have been effected in Palestinian policy, and it didn't occur.

Now, that doesn't absolve Israel of its responsibilities, as well. I think this has been a minuet in which both partners have been looking for ways out of the dance.

But I don't think, at the end of the day, that Olmert's going to have a lot of optimism that a dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas will succeed, and that's why he will be pursuing parallel tracks, on the one hand to probe, and to discuss, and see what Abbas can deliver, but, on the other hand, to get into advanced planning for a very challenging and logistically demanding exercise of withdrawing Israeli settlers.

Major challenges ahead

Khalil Jahshan
National Association of Arab Americans
[W]hen you see the collapse of law and order, you see the different factions going to the street in an armed fashion and going after each other, that doesn't, I think, bode well for the Palestinians in general.

MARGARET WARNER: Khalil Jahshan, what do these developments do to the internal power struggle that we're seeing played out in the streets, in fact -- certainly in Gaza -- between the Hamas-led government and Mahmoud Abbas?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: I think there is an ominous character to these developments, particularly in Gaza. And when you see the collapse of law and order, you see the different factions going to the street in an armed fashion and going after each other, that doesn't, I think, bode well for the Palestinians in general.

But, in terms of Abbas, there is no doubt about it that it kind of weakens him, in addition to already the war of words against him by the Israelis and already to the policy of benign neglect from Washington, I mean, all this -- Abu Mazen certainly was, or Mahmoud Abbas, was a heck of a lot stronger a year ago than he is today, in terms of his ability to reach an agreement with the Israelis.

MARGARET WARNER: But does the fact that now the Israelis are at least going to make these overtures, does that give him any kind of renewed standing in that power struggle he's engaged in?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: It could. It definitely could. And I think that's where Israeli policy went wrong several months ago, by trying to basically isolate him, which contributed to the victory of...

MARGARET WARNER: And dismiss him as irrelevant.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: ... and dismiss him, which -- and also deprive him of what he needs, in terms of like a success at the negotiating table, to be able to win the elections.

But at any rate, let's say now, if they were serious and they really offer him some serious gain, I think, yes, that could influence a Palestinian public opinion, which did vote for the international agenda of Hamas. It voted for the domestic agenda of Hamas.

MARGARET WARNER: And meanwhile keep telling pollsters that actually they still support an agreement with Israel.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: So go figure.

Dan Kurtzer, does the U.S., do you think, have to get involved now in this negotiation in an active way for it to have any prospect of going anywhere?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, I'm very concerned that we didn't see much creativity or innovative thinking come out, either before or even as a result of Olmert's visit here. And I just wonder whether or not the administration believes that it has the capital, both at home and abroad, to take any kind of bold moves in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

You know, the challenging problems in Iraq, the difficult in now trying to curb Iranian influence and its nuclear program, as well as other problems on the international agenda, suggest that the administration may be looking to manage the Israeli-Palestinian dimension rather than jump into it.

And I think this is not a time for major peacemaking efforts by the administration, but I do hope that we can get some creative juices flowing to see whether or not we can translate what will certainly be a dialogue between Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas into something that might produce a measure of success.

MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, do you agree the U.S. would have to get involved?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: I agree with Dan 100 percent on this one. However, what is missing is really the political and a moral will, not just creativity.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, we'll see. Thank you. Khalil Jahshan, Dan Kurtzer, thank you, both.