Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Israeli prime minister's visit to Washington

The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the United States this week did not produce encouraging signs for peace in the Middle East.

The full text of his speech to Congress is available at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's address before Congress Ha'aretz 24/05/2006.   Olmert encouraged Americans to think that the threat from Iran is urgent:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, allow me to turn to another dark and gathering storm casting its shadow over the world.

Every generation is confronted with a moment of truth and trial. From the savagery of slavery to the horrors of World War II to the gulags of the communist bloc that which is right and good in this world has always been at war with the horrific evil permitted by human indifference.

Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terror and a notorious violator of fundamental human rights, stands on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. With these weapons, the security of the entire world is put in jeopardy.

We deeply appreciate America's leadership on this issue and the strong bipartisan conviction that a nuclear-armed Iran is an intolerable threat to the peace and security of the world.

It cannot be permitted to materialize.

This Congress has proven its conviction by initiating the Iran Freedom and Support Act. We applaud these efforts.

A nuclear Iran means a terrorist state could achieve the primary mission for which terrorists live and die: the mass destruction of innocent human life.

This challenge, which I believe is the test of our time, is one the West cannot afford to fail.

The radical Iranian regime has declared the United States its enemy. The president believes it is his religious duty and his destiny to lead his country in a violent conflict against the infidels. With pride, he denies the Jewish Holocaust and speaks brazenly, calling to wipe Israel off the map.

For us, this is an existential threat, a threat to which we cannot consent.

But it is not Israel's threat alone. It is a threat to all those committed to stability in the Middle East and the well-being of the world at large.

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, our moment is now. History will judge our generation by the actions we take now, by our willingness to stand up for peace and security and freedom, and by our courage to do what is right.

The international community will be measured not by its intentions but by its results.

The international community will be judged by its ability to convince nations and peoples to turn their backs on hatred and zealotry.

If we don't take Iran's bellicose rhetoric seriously now, we will be forced to take its nuclear aggression seriously later.  (my emphasis)

A few comments on some of his major points on Iran:

Iran is not a "existential" threat to Israel, i.e., it does not threaten Israel's existence.  Even though Iranian President Ahmadinejad really does deny the Holocaust, indicating the intensity of his anti-Semitism.  Olmert also repeated the bad translation excuse for going to war with Iran.

Even less is Iran an existential threat to the United States.

The truth is that there is no justification for the US attacking Iran.  It would just be killing people and expanding the Iraq War with no good reason.  The US does have the capability to bomb suspected Iranian nuclear sites.  But it doesn't have the troops to significantly boost the US forces in Iraq in case of the likely Iranian retaliation.  Nor is there any guarantee that even massive strikes on the suspected Iranian sites would significantly set back the Iranian nuclear program.  An attack would also tend to unify the Iranians around the hardliners in their regime.  Including around their determination to pursue Iran's nuclear program.

And, just as a reality check, the only country in history that has ever used nuclear weapons in war is still the United States, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Since that was genuinely a defensive war for the US, I'm not sure we could call that"nuclear aggression".  Israel has threatened to use its own nuclear weapons on occasion, as has the US since 1945.

Olmert described to Congress his view for unilaterally imposing a territorial solution on the Palestinians in the West Bank, which he calls "realignment" (you also see it referred to as simply "alignment" or as "convergence"):

The next step is even more vital to our future and to the prospects of finally bringing peace to the Middle East. Success will only be possible with America as an active participant, leading the support of our friends in Europe and across the world.

Should we realize that the bilateral track with the Palestinians is of no consequence, should the Palestinians ignore our outstretched hand for peace, Israel will seek other alternatives to promote our future and the prospects of hope in the Middle East. At that juncture, the time for realignment will occur.

Realignment would be a process to allow Israel to build its future without being held hostage to Palestinian terrorist activities.

Realignment would significantly reduce the friction between Israelis and Palestinians and prevent much of the conflict between our two battered nations.

The goal is to break the chains that have tangled our two peoples in unrelenting violence for far too many generations. With our future unbound, peace and stability might finally find its way to the doorsteps of this troubled region.

Olmert's current plan for dealing with the Palestinians is to make a "unilateral withdrawal" from the West Bank, similar to that Ariel Sharon carried out in Gaza.  The "unilateral" part means not having an agreement with the Palestinians on what is to be done.

In Gaza, where even most Israeli hardliners did not consider itvital to retain Israeli settlements, the Sharon government actually did dismantle the settlements.  In the West Bank, though, Olmert's "alignment" plan envisions maintaining a network of settlement criss-crossing Palestinian territory along with the new "security fence".  It apparently would include blocking off direct Palestinian connections to Jerusalem.

The "alignment" plan will not produce peace.  It will make a permanent peace harder to achieve.

Shmuel Rosner reads Olmert's reception in Washington as being, in reality, anacceptance by the Bush administration of this "alignment' plan.  He writes in 'Garbage time' for the U.S. Ha'aretz 05/25/06:

Careful planning and suitable circumstances played into Olmert's hands. American officials who only wanted to "examine" Olmert's ideas moved to calling them "interesting" and then "bold."

In any case, all that was left for everyone to do was to pretend that "first we'll try every way to negotiate with the Palestinians" as long as they fulfill all their commitments from Olso to the road map and beyond.

In a few months, when everyone discovered - to their horror - that they don't intend to do so, it will be possible to embark on a new, safer road. The president removed the only obstacle remaining in Olmert's path. He made it clear that Olmert's alignment plan does not contradict Bush's vision.

Olmert's success indicates the Americans' failure. The administration has tried every formula and way and is all out of ideas. "I had no doubt the U.S. would support his plan," says Engel. Other senior Administration officials also realized that they had no better alternative to offer.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is trying a ploy to enhance the Palestinian negotiating position.  He is asking the majority Hamas, the party with a majority in the Palestinian parliament, to support a national (Palestinian) referendum on recognizing the 1967 borders of Israel as the basis of negotiation.

This would not be exactly the same as the recognition of Israel's right to exist that Israel is demanding (along with other conditions) as a prerequisite for negotiations.  But it would be a de facto recognition.  And an official acceptance of the 1967 border by a Palestinian majority and by Hamas would surely enhance their international legitimacy and make it more difficult for Israel to refuse to negotiate with them over a broader peace settlement.

Matthew Tostevin  in US visit boosts Olmert's unilateral plan Boston Globe/Reuters 05/25/06 agrees with Rosner:

Forget the talk in Washington about giving peacemaking a chance.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's trip to the White House was in reality an important step toward imposing a border unilaterally on the Palestinians.

The shift in U.S. language to describe Prime Minister Olmert's ideas for dividing up the occupied West Bank from "interesting" to "bold" might not look like much, but was more than the Israelis had expected in advance.

The insistence by both Olmert and President George W. Bush that diplomacy with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would have to be tried before unilateral measures was seen in Israel as neither particularly unexpected nor meaningful.

In Tostevin's analysis, Olmert is calculating on continued disputes between Abbas and Hamas to give Israel an excuse for dragging out upcoming talks with Abbas without meaningful progress.  He also argues that Bush and Olmert are both counting on the delay to give them time to position themselves better to implement the unilateral "alignment" option.  And, as he explains:

Meanwhile, Israel's West Bank barrier, a key component of unilateral separation, is growing steadily longer and will probably be finished next year. Israel says the barrier keeps out bombers, but makes no secret that it could more or less become the border. Palestinians have long called it a land grab.

The next phase of Olmert's plan would be to remove isolated West Bank settlements in a bigger version of the 2005 pullout from Gaza. The Palestinians could hardly object to removing settlers, but might have missed a window for talks by then.

The United States would still be unlikely to recognize any new boundary as a formal border - as Israel might ideally want - but approval for the withdrawal plan could effectively seal the line that Israel lays down for decades.

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