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U.S. Finesses Olmert Plan

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated: May 23, 2006


Ehud Olmert's meeting with George W. Bush at the White House, and his address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday, marked an important step in his affirmation as Ariel Sharon's successor (Haaretz). In the meeting, and the news conference which followed, Bush reaffirmed his determination to keep the government led by Hamas in diplomatic isolation, and he lent general support to Olmert's plan for further unilateral withdrawals from occupied territories (al-Jazeera termed it "muted backing.") Bush asked, though, that Israel exhaust all efforts engage Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas directly (BBC). Importantly, as Haaretz analyst Aluf Benn notes, both men insisted such withdrawals "would not determine permanent borders, which would only be set after a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians."

Nonetheless, Olmert's "convergence plan" for unilateral withdrawal is widely seen as an attempt to set Israel's future borders. In an interview with the New York Times, Olmert insisted he will consult the Palestinians before making moves that could affect the borders. Yet, even as Ynet commentator Nahum Barnea declared that "Olmert passed the audition," the U.S. had its own concerns. On Iran, that Israel maintain a low profile and make no provocative move. And, Barnea says, "They are worried about a vacuum being created in the Palestinian territories after an Israeli pullout, about the impression of a Hamas victory that will be created in the Arab world, about Israeli actions that will thwart chances for a peace agreement in the future." The Saudi-owned paper Arab News puts Bush's dilemma this way: "The administration is trying to win European support for unified action to impede Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but many European officials fear Olmert’s plan is an attempt by Israel to set permanent borders without negotiation with the Palestinians."

Prospects for serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians remain remote as long as Hamas refuses to renounce violence. Even still, notes David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in this report that, Olmert's proposed unilateral withdrawal could actually advance prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells's Bernard Gwertzman the Israelis and Hamas need to embark on a period of "quiet diplomacy" to try to sort out a way of co-existing.

Contacts do continue between Israel and Palestinian officials not associated with Hamas, and Olmert told Bush he regards PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a sincere player. Last weekend, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Vice Premier Shimon Peres met Abbas in Egypt (al-Jazeera), the highest-level contact between Israel and the PA since Hamas was elected to lead the government in January. The meeting, at which Livni and Abbas agreed to establish a negotiating channel that excludes Hamas, came as chaos continues to spread in the Palestinian Authority. The territory is gripped by tension between armed factions of Hamas and Fatah. Members of militias loyal to both sides faced off in the streets (Independent) after the Hamas government defied Abbas' prohibition and created a security force stocked with militants and led by Jamal Abu Samhadana, who is accused of planning attacks against Israel. There have been several assassination attempts against Abbas loyalists, and armed clashes between the militias are a continuing threat (Daily Star).

There are other signs of strain as well. A senior Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, was caught at the Rafah border crossing from Egypt carrying nearly $1 million in his belt (al-Jazeera). Abbas has called for the attorney general to investigate Zuhri for smuggling (JPost). The move shows how desperate the Hamas government is for money after the United States and European Union cut funding to the PA over Hamas' terrorist tactics. The crippling PA budget shortfall is detailed in this CFR Background Q&A. PA government employees have not been paid for two months, economic hardship is spreading, and the territory is on the verge of a health-care crisis as hospitals run out of needed supplies (AP).

But the West's strategy of isolating Hamas carries strong risks. Palestinian scholar Mohammad Yaghi writes that if the Hamas government fails, the alternative is most likely not a return to Fatah rule, but Somalia-style anarchy.

There are signs that moderates are vying for influence within Hamas; a new poll shows most Palestinians favor negotiating with Israel over letting it act unilaterally (CSMonitor). Nadia Hijab and Schmuel Rosner discuss whether to isolate or engage the Hamas government in this CFR Online Debate. And a Washington Institute for Near East Policy brief assesses the impact of the Hamas victory on the PA's economy and security.

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