TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s administration is scurrying to put together an agenda for the Israeli leaders scheduled talks in Washington next week, with a series of specific requests mostly tied to financial aid already having been rejected by the White House, sources in Olmert’s office told WND.
Olmert aims to secure large U.S. grant and loan packages to fund his stated plan to withdraw from most of Judea and Samaria, the biblical Jewish communities now known as the West Bank, while American officials object to Olmert raising funding issues during his upcoming trip, diplomatic sources said.
The sources added the White House is not convinced Olmert commands a government coalition stable enough to carry out the withdrawal plan.
American Jewish leaders close to the U.S. administration have rushed to Jerusalem in recent days to consult with Olmert and to help formulate a strategy for the White House visit, WND has learned. Olmert is scheduled to meet with Bush next Tuesday after a trip to the Pentagon, and is slated to address Congress next Wednesday.
Olmert’s chief of staff Dov Weisglass and primary advisor Yoram Turbowitz headed to Washington last night to meet with senior U.S. officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Steven Hadley to help map out the agenda for next week’s visit.
According to reports, Olmert’s trip will focus on U.S. support for Israel amid threats from Iran and the ongoing attempted isolation of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
Olmert will reportedly outline his so-called convergence plan, which seeks to “change Israel’s borders” by withdrawing from most of Judea and Samaria, which runs alongside Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel’s international airport. Olmert officials last week announced they are also drawing up a plan to evacuate parts of Jerusalem.
But aids to Olmert told WND the prime minister also wants to propose a request for large financial aid packages from the international community led by the U.S. to fund his withdrawal plan, currently priced at over $10 billion.
Financing for the plan is considered crucial for its implementation. The U.S. previously pledged to help fund Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which was carried out this summer at a cost of about $2 billion, but little aid actually arrived. Analysts here contend the Judea and Samaria withdrawal plan could easily get stalled in the Knesset if Olmert doesn’t secure international funding to defray the costs.
In a series of cables sent to Washington from Olmert’s offices and through the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, the requests to discuss aid for the Judea and Samaria withdrawal were rejected, diplomatic sources said.
Bush is said to be hard-pressed to sell additional Israeli aid packages to Congress during an election year while lawmakers are already debating the price tags of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also factored in are recent large domestic aid packages in the wake of last summer’s massive hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf coast, the diplomatic sources said.
Israel is already the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, receiving over $3 billion per year mostly for defense purposes. In addition, America provides some $7 billion per year in loan guarantees, which Israel has a history of always repaying on time.
Diplomatic sources said American officials suggested any talks with Bush about the Judea and Samaria withdrawal center on the general nature of U.S. political support for the plan, which seeks to gain recognition of new borders created after the withdrawal is implemented.
Bush will also press Olmert to restart talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas while knowing the talks will likely be fruitless, the diplomatic sources said, adding the U.S. feels it is important to show its European allies it is at least pressing Israel to talk with the Palestinians. Plus, such efforts will boast Abbas against the Hamas government in the international arena, they said.
Political sources close to Olmert’s office told WND the Israeli prime minister is most pressed to convince the Bush administration he has the political clout necessary to carry out his Judea and Samaria withdrawal plan.
“The Bush administration does not have faith that Olmert has the parliamentary coalition needed to sustain the firestorm of political activity that is sure to surround the implementation of the withdrawal,” said a political source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They do not see him as the strongman Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to them.”
Olmert currently leads a slim governing coalition of 67 out of 120 Knesset seats. Typically, Israeli governments composed of ongoing coalitions with less than 70 seats tend to be unstable and short-lived.
Olmert’s government relies heavily on 12 seats from the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which traditionally opposes land concessions and which some analysts have predicted may bolt the government as the convergence plan gets closer to implementation. Olmert may then be forced to bring Arab parties into his government or form a coalition with the Knesset’s right-wing bloc, which would likely only enter the government on condition a Judea and Samaria withdrawal is either nixed, postponed, or put to a Knesset referendum.
The ongoing flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the upcoming Washington trip has prompted American Jewish leaders with close ties to the White House to fly to Jerusalem in recent days for “emergency consultations” with Olmert.
The leaders recently received discreet advice from pro-Israel senators and congressmen to urge Olmert to focus his trip on general issues and not financial aid. The Jewish leaders are helping Olmert formulate a strategy for convincing the White House he has credibility with the Israeli public and has the political backing necessary to forge ahead with his withdrawal plan, sources close to the Jewish groups told WND.
Mortimer Zuckerman, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and the Conference’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, are currently in Israel meeting with senior Israeli officials this week, including Olmert.
Hoenlein told WND yesterday, “I know there is a lot of speculation regarding what Olmert will ask and what he will not ask. I think the discussions will be found to focus on the understanding of what the Prime Minister has in mind regarding his withdrawal plan, the direction he will take and how those steps will ensure mutual understanding and cooperation [with the U.S.]”
Hoenlein said the “joint war on terrorism being fought by Israel and the U.S.” unites the two countries, and that Olmert’s visit will seek to solidify “cooperation on the many vital issues that require coordination.”