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Israel's Olmert Seeks Support at White House


President Bush is hosting Israel's new Prime Minister today. Ehud Olmert is expected to describe his plan to pull Israeli forces out of parts of the West Bank. That would prepare the way for final borders with the Palestinians.

American officials say President Bush will be asking for details but is unlikely to endorse this plan in public. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains why.


The Bush administration has a tricky task if it wants to be seen as serious about a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The big question is whether Israel's unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank can be done in a way that makes the Palestinian state possible. Egypt's former foreign minister Ahmed Maher believes the Israelis will leave the Palestinians with something that looks like Gruyere cheese.

Mr. AHMED MAHER (Former Egyptian Foreign Minister): It will be impossible if they implement their plan to create a Palestinian state.

KELEMEN: But unilateralism seems to be the only game in town, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center's Aaron David Miller. He has advised former secretaries of state on the Middle East and sees little possibility of a negotiated settlement with Hamas, a designated terrorist organization that does not recognize Israel, running the Palestinian government.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Woodrow Wilson Center): The reality is that for now -and I have not abandoned, nor should we abandon hope in a bilateral negotiation to produce a two-state solution - but unilateralism, it seems to me, as long as it is viewed as a way station and not the final destination to set borders, could actually be quite useful.

KELEMEN: Experts like Seymour Reich, the president of the Israel Policy Forum, say first the U.S. should encourage the Israeli Prime Minister to consult with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. SEYMOUR REICH (President, Israel Policy Forum): Notwithstanding everyone's perception that Abbas weak and may not be able to pull it off, everyone believes that an effort should be made. And I think Olmert is prepared to do that. He told us that when we were in Israel about three weeks ago, he just doesn't want failure, and he doesn't want untoward delay in terms of his ultimate goals.

KELEMEN: David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also favors Israeli talks with Abbas, but says they should be narrowly focused.

Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): He can offer his ideas. He can try to influence this. The Palestinians would have a vote, but not a veto.

KELEMEN: That is not likely to be enough for President Abbas. Palestinian politicians, such as Yassar Abed Rabbo, say the only way that Abbas can strengthen his hand is to show his population he is capable of negotiating final status issues, which can't be resolved unilaterally.

Mr. YASSAR ABED RABBO (Palestinian Politician): We are becoming more and more embarrassed everyday, because we are the moderates who say we want negotiations; we want to a negotiated settlement, et cetera, et cetera. And the ordinary person in the street look at our face, and smile and say, you are defending what negotiations? Where are they?

KELEMEN: Israeli Prime Minister Olmert told CNN's late edition, on the eve of his trip, that he would prefer to have negotiations. But he made clear, he thinks Abbas is powerless. So, he said, he would work with key players like the Bush administration, to win support for his idea of removing some Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and bolstering enclaves Israel intends to keep.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): And we'll try to establish a basis, upon which, an understanding of our future borders can be reached.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials say they are interested in hearing more details of the plan, but will also encourage the new Israeli Prime Minister, not to pre-judge final status issues. Some analysts warn that the Bush administration is taking too passive a position, because officials are distracted by other crises in the Middle East, Iraq and Iran.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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