LONDON - The sign at the entrance to the Prime Minister's Bureau at 10 Downing Street in London declared a "black special" alert this week: not entirely calm, but no reason for particular excitement. This is also how Prime Minister Tony Blair's reception of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his convergence plan looked. The British leader listened, made comments and sent Olmert to do his homework.
Facing the press Blair stuck impressively to his government's formal policy, which supports a "negotiated arrangement" between Israel and the Palestinians. Firmly but politely he rejected all attempts to divert him from that and to extract some words on the convergence plan beyond the statement that a lack of negotiations would create "a different reality." In the Israeli retinue, they were impressed by his conduct: Blair glanced at the main points of the joint statements that his aides formulated with Olmert's advisors and spoke extemporaneously. There was no piece of paper lying on the podium in front of him.
The British have been accompanying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for almost 90 years, from the days of the Balfour declaration and the Mandate to Camp David and the disengagement, and over this period they have learned a thing or two. They have no illusions that the call for negotiations will make Olmert sit down tomorrow for meaningful talks with a Palestinian partner. And unlike United States President George W. Bush, they did not try to squeeze out of Olmert declarations of support for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli prime minister did indeed promise to meet with the Palestinian leader "in a few weeks," but only in order to talk about fulfilling the minimum conditions for negotiations, and not about the future map of the territories. It was difficult to come away with the impression that Olmert attributes much importance, or pins any hopes at all, on dialogue with the Palestinian side. He is paying lip service to negotiations as the prerequisite for a unilateral Israeli move.
And thus Olmert stood facing the British reporters and members of Parliament, and tried to persuade them: Only a few years ago, he said to them, an Israeli offer to withdraw from 90 percent of the territories would have been greeted as a miracle, and now it is being described as a Zionist plot. This frustrating gap in perception expresses the problem of marketing the convergence in Europe. The British have no problem with the first part of Olmert's plan, which talks about withdrawal and the evacuation of settlements. It is hard for them to be enthusiastic about the second part, which calls for annexing one-tenth of the West Bank and postpones dealing with Jerusalem until the distant future. Some are concerned that an attempt to set the border by force will drive the Palestinians to make their territorial struggle more extreme.
After decades of strong, total opposition to the settlements in the territories and to any Israeli presence beyond the Green Line (pre-Six Day War border), it is difficult for European public opinion to digest a plan that would legitimize the forceful annexation of territories. This isn't America. In Europe there are many Muslims, the pro-Palestinian lobby is strong and rooted, and it is impossible to expect Blair to praise Olmert's "daring" the way Bush did. And if friendly Britain is hesitant about the convergence, it will be harder for the countries on the Continent to digest it.
At 10 Downing Street they realize the situation in the West Bank is far more complicated than it was in the Gaza Strip. They realize they cannot expect Olmert to withdraw from all of the territory the way former prime minister Ariel Sharon did and that a more complex solution is needed. But they will not sign him a blank check before he presents a clear plan, one that shows the withdrawal line and whether Olmert is really leaving contiguous territory for a future Palestinian state. Only after he does this homework will they assess the situation here and decide how much support to offer. With this message Olmert will return home this evening from his debut trip to Europe.
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