Israel to muster US support for border plans

Newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set his sights on Friday on a visit to Washington to win United States support for his plan to redraw Israel’s borders and leave parts of the West Bank.

Olmert, whose four-party coalition was sworn in on Thursday, will leave for the US on May 21, making his first overseas trip as prime minister.

Although no official schedule has been released, the cornerstone of Olmert’s visit to Israel’s closest ally will be talks with President George Bush, to whom he is expected to outline his plan to separate from the Palestinians.

Acquiring US and wider international support is fundamental to the chances of implementing the hugely ambitious project, which would see 70 000 Jews removed from the West Bank and large settlements effectively annexed to Israel.

Olmert has warned he is prepared to implement the project with or without agreement from the Palestinians, saying no progress in the stalled Middle East process is possible with radical Islamists Hamas in government.

“The point of the visit is to present the government’s programme and to enlist the American support that Mr Olmert judges crucial for its implementation,” said a senior official in the premier’s office.

“American support is vital to win an international consensus comparable to that for the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip,” which Olmert’s predecessor and political mentor Ariel Sharon masterminded last year, the official added.

Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s senior adviser, who is to stay on the job for at least a few more weeks, has already left for Washington to prepare the ground.

Olmert will also try to muster support for his plan from Israel’s key Arab ally Jordan, in a summit an Israeli official said he and King Abdullah II agreed to hold after his visit to the US.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who flatly opposes any unilateral Israeli moves, telephoned Olmert on Friday to congratulate him on his new government and urge him to resume Middle East peace talks.

Although chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the two men agreed to meet after Olmert’s return from Washington, the prime minister’s office widely denied any meeting had been scheduled.

While both Israel and Washington advocate the desirability of a negotiated two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, the White House said on Thursday there was no partner for peace in a Palestinian government led by Hamas.

Bush declared that the US had an unshakeable commitment to defend Israel and that his administration would have no contact with Hamas as long as it refuses to recognise the Jewish state.

“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is strong, enduring and unshakeable,” Bush told the influential American Jewish Committee.

“Hamas has made it clear that they do not acknowledge the right of Israel to exist and I’ve made it clear that so long as that’s their policy, we will have no contact with the leaders of Hamas,” Bush added.

An editorial in the Haaretz newspaper hailed the huge task of the border project and underscored the necessity of getting the Americans on board, regardless of whether the Palestinians were going to be frozen out.

“Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza looks like a walk in the park compared to the convergence that Ehud Olmert plans for the West Bank,” it said.

“Before anyone moves, support has to be won from the Americans,” it added.

In the coming days, government departments are to begin drawing up plans for implementing the convergence plan, with Olmert’s official deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to lead the process of partitioning land.

Olmert told Parliament on Thursday that continued isolated settlements in the West Bank would “endanger” Israel, stressing that it was vital to redraw the borders and separate from the Palestinians to maintain its Jewish majority.

“The borders of Israel, which will be defined in the coming years, will be significantly different from the areas controlled by the state of Israel today,” he said.—AFP

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