On Eve of Olmert Visit, Israel Rebuffs American Push for Interim Peace Steps

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 06, 2007, issue of June 08, 2007.

Washington - With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert poised for a White House visit, Israeli and American officials are divided over proposals to alleviate the situation in the Palestinian territories.

Israel informed American negotiators last week that security concerns would prevent it from achieving all the benchmarks called for in the latest American-sponsored plan. The Bush administration is hoping to quickly reach a broad agreement in order to allow for freedom of movement and commerce in Palestinian areas in the hopes of strengthening Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Another potential source of conflict, according to Israeli media reports, involves possible Israeli-Syrian talks. Olmert is reportedly planning to ask the Bush administration to drop its objections to such contacts, so that Jerusalem can open a secret negotiating track with Damascus. Israeli officials subsequently denied the reports, saying that the Olmert government does not have any plans to pursue such talks.

The wrangling over the details of the benchmarks document appears to reflect the current state of affairs between the Bush administration and the Olmert government. While both sides seem to agree that there is no real prospect for progress on major long-term issues, the United States is growing increasingly frustrated over Israel’s reluctance to seek progress on smaller short-term matters that would provide a boost to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Middle East policy.

While Israel has not yet officially concluded its discussion on the benchmarks plan — a set of corresponding measures that both Israelis and Palestinians are asked to take in order to reduce violence and improve living conditions — it is already clear that Israel has flatly turned down some of the steps called for in the plan.

Talking to Jewish activists Tuesday in a conference call, Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, seemed to brush off the entire notion of American benchmarks.

“I don’t need anyone to give me an action plan, because we’re already doing it,” Sneh said during the call, which was organized by the Israel Policy Forum.

Despite such dismissive comments, the Israeli official also made clear that in its response to the American plan, Jerusalem had divided the measures in the document into three categories: those that already have been implemented, those that will be implemented in the future and measures to which Israel would not agree.

“There are steps that at this moment we cannot do, and we shouldn’t argue about it,” Sneh said. One of these steps, according to the deputy defense minister, is the American request to lift roadblocks surrounding West Bank

towns, a measure that Israel fears would allow the spread of weapons and the planning of suicide attacks.

In his recent update to Congress and the administration two weeks ago, America’s security coordinator in the Palestinian territories, Keith Dayton, discussed Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the American requests. According to congressional staffers, Dayton voiced frustration over Israel’s refusal to lift roadblocks. The Bush administration views the lifting of the roadblocks as vital for the restoration of normal life in the Palestinian territories.

The disagreements between Israel and the United States regarding the benchmarks document were expected to be discussed on the sidelines of the United States-Israel strategic dialogue, which took place in Washington this week, in an attempt to iron out differences before the June 19 White House meeting between Olmert and President Bush.

Meanwhile, in an effort to secure further support for Abbas, Bush issued a waiver last week allowing him to bypass Congress in obtaining another $18 million for the Palestinian leader. The money, according to a White House statement, will be used to help Abbas’s security forces and to promote democracy and the rule of law in the Palestinian Authority.

A recent report compiled by Amnesty International underscored the call, also voiced by the United States, to lift roadblocks and allow for free movement within the territories.

“Palestinians living in the West Bank are blocked at every turn. This is not simply an inconvenience — it can be a matter of life or death,” said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program. “It is unacceptable that women in labor, sick children or victims of accidents on their way to the hospital should be forced to take long detours and face delays which can cost them their lives.”

Israel rejected the human rights group’s conclusions and called the report “one-sided, immoral and riddled with mistakes.”

The Palestinian issue is expected to take up a significant part of Olmert’s talks in Washington, though the Iranian nuclear threats and the situation in Lebanon and Syria are expected to dominate the conversation.

This will be Olmert’s third visit to see Bush since taking office. According to Israeli sources, the purpose of the meeting will be “relationship maintenance” — a term used to describe the need of the two leaders to reassert their friendship and work out differences.

Olmert will be coming to Washington at a time of relative calm in the Israeli political arena, following the expected election of a new president and the completion of the internal elections in the Labor Party — Olmert’s biggest coalition partner.

On his way to Washington, Olmert is expected to stop over in New York for meetings with Jewish communal leaders and a possible appearance before a larger Jewish crowd.

Olmert, who has been quite public in voicing unqualified support for Bush and who has argued that Israel currently lacks a Palestinian partner for peace talks, will find a Jewish public that on some fronts holds views almost diametrically opposed to his own. A joint survey conducted by Zogby International on behalf of both Americans for Peace Now and the Arab American Institute found that 80% of American Jews agreed that Bush’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not effective. The survey also found overwhelming support within the Jewish and Arab communities for a two-state solution for the conflict.

During his previous visits to Washington, and while speaking to Jewish activists via satellite during an American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in March, Olmert has made a point of voicing support for Bush’s policy in Iraq and of warning that an early American troop withdrawal from Iraq could hurt Israel. These remarks drew criticism from moderate Jewish activists and from Democratic politicians. Sources briefed on the planning of Olmert’s talks in Washington said that the Iraq issue might come up again in his conversation with the president but it is not expected to dominate the agenda.

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