Olmert says Israel willing to draw borders on its own

May 25, 2006|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a joint session of Congress yesterday that Israel will draw its own borders in the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority proves incapable of being a partner in peace efforts.

"We cannot wait for the Palestinians forever," Olmert told the gathering of House and Senate members. "Our deepest wish is to build a better future for our region, hand in hand with a Palestinian partner, but if not, we will move forward, but not alone."

Olmert's address echoed what he told President Bush on Tuesday at the White House. Bush said he considered Olmert's plan for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank a fallback plan and a bold idea "that could be an important step that we both support."

Bush's embrace of the plan shifts long-standing U.S. policy that negotiation, not unilateral action, is the only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several lawmakers and Middle East policy experts said the shift isn't a major change in U.S. policy and merely reflects the difficulty after the January election of a Palestinian government dominated by Hamas, a militant Islamic group dedicated to Israel's destruction.

"What are you supposed to do with Hamas? They reject Israel's right to exist and support terror," said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. ambassador who served as point man and negotiator on the Israeli-Palestinian matters during the Clinton and elder Bush administrations. "The shift was Israel's move. Here, it's acknowledging there aren't any other games in town and the status quo is unacceptable."

Olmert has consistently voiced skepticism about Abbas' ability to negotiate a new peace deal, going so far as to deride him as powerless and helpless on the eve of his trip to Washington. Also, the Israeli leader has made it clear that Hamas must renounce its call for the violent destruction of Israel before he talks to the Palestinian leadership.

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