Now, It Is Olmert's Turn

Olmert will find it relatively easy to gain U.S. support for his plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank. His biggest difficulty will be the Knesset.

WASHINGTON - After the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, one of the aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked if the result signaled the end to Israel's unilateral withdrawal process from the territories. After all, "the world" saw what happened in Gaza after the disengagement, and will now oppose a similar process in the West Bank lest it also turn into Hamastan. "By all means," responded the aide. "Let them oppose the withdrawal, and then we will have an occupation with an international license. We've been waiting for that for 40 years," he added cynically.

This was the reasoning that formed the crux of the meeting between Olmert and President George W. Bush at the White House this week. The United States has been preaching to Israel since 1967 to withdraw from the territories and not establish settlements in them. After Israel itself realized that it has to evacuate the settlers and quit the West Bank, the United States cannot stop it, even if its priorities are different. The administration can influence the pace of the withdrawal and its scope, but not prevent it.

The Europeans, the Arab states and the Palestinians, who seemingly favor evacuation of settlements and are only opposed to unilateral actions, will have a difficult time persuading Israel to remain in Itamar, Yitzhar, and Tapuah until a Palestinian partner appears.

Olmert is the first prime minister who already on his first trip to Washington made it clear that Israel no longer wants most of the West Bank and regards it as a burden and not as an asset. Ehud Barak came here seven years ago with a far-reaching plan for arrangements with Syria and the Palestinians that included leaving the territories, but he demanded an "end to the conflict" in return. Olmert's not asking for anything. His promise "to seek every path" toward negotiations is empty of content: He prefers Israel to act on its own, without any favors from the other side.

The conditions Olmert has posed to the Palestinian side look like a tougher version of the "seven days of quiet" from the Ariel Sharon era. His predecessor made do with an end to terror and the dismantling of the terror organizations, and Olmert is also demanding the implementation of all the previous agreements - those very same agreements whose clauses Israel, too, failed to uphold when it was convenient for it, such as the "safe passage" from Gaza to the West Bank.

Unlike Sharon, who constantly said he had no faith in the Arabs, Olmert says he believes in the sincerity of Mahmoud Abbas, but thinks the "elected president" of the Palestinian Authority is too weak. The outcome is the same in both cases.

Olmert received generous support from Bush for his "bold ideas." The price the Americans demanded was an upgraded version of the plan. They made it clear that they will not recognize the borders that Israel sets for itself without Palestinian approval. In exchange, Olmert softened his statements. The "permanent borders" he promised to shape have been turned into "defense borders." The settlement blocs will be annexed to Israel only as part of the final-status agreement, and will, until then, maintain their status as disputed occupied territory.

The talk about building thousands of apartments in the settlement blocs and the area of E1 between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem were forgotten on the way to Washington. In the foreseeable future, Olmert will have to make do with quiet U.S. backing for moves like completing the fence and building inside the blocs.

On his way to pulling out of the territories, Olmert opted for the modus operandi of his predecessor in the disengagement: First come to an agreement with the Americans, and then use it both as a lever to enlist domestic support and a restraint against backtracking.

Bush's statement this week lived up to the prime minister's goals. But this was only the initial and easy stage. Bush did his part; he adopted the realignment and did not fall into the trap of "occupation with a license." Now, it is Olmert's turn to keep his promises. To this end, he will have to overcome his coalition problems and the settlers' opposition to the withdrawal.

And compared to these difficulties, the visit with the president was a walk in the park.