JERUSALEM – The Bush administration will not pressure Israel into making unilateral concessions to the Palestinians, top White House officials told representatives of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish outreach movement during a meeting in Washington.
Chabad last week culminated a two-day commemoration of the 12th anniversary of the death of its leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with an event attended by Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten.
Participants in the meeting said Bolten assured the Chabad group Bush would not strong-hand Israel into ceding territory unless it was within the framework of a negotiated settlement that involved important incentives for Israel.
Bolten reportedly said Bush would follow Olmert’s lead in deciding which Israeli concessions to support.
Some analysts here have contended U.S. pressure has been crucial in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to vacate Judea and Samaria, mountainous terrain within rocket-firing range of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the country’s international airport.
But U.S. officials told WND the withdrawal was an Israeli initiative and that Olmert has been petitioning Bush for support.
“It is Olmert that is pressuring us to go along with his withdrawal plan,” said a Bush administration official who was part of a U.S. delegation in May that received Olmert during the Israeli leader’s visit to Washington.
During his Washington visit, Olmert formally presented his Judea and Samaria withdrawal to Bush. The American leader expressed some reservations and refrained during a joint press conference from issuing an endorsement.
While giving Olmert credit for proposing “bold ideas” that “could be an important step” toward peace, Bush stressed the U.S.-led “Road Map” which offers a Palestinian state, and urged talks with Abbas. He stated a negotiated agreement “best serves Israelis and Palestinians and the cause of peace.”
A member of the Israeli delegation at the White House meeting described the U.S. attitude toward the Judea and Samaria withdrawal as “lukewarm,” explaining the White House raised a number of concerns, including the possibility a terrorist entity would be created in the areas evacuated, reservations expressed about the plan by Jordan and Egypt and the effects of the plan on U.S. regional interests.
Political sources close to Olmert’s office told WND the Israeli prime minister has been pressed to convince the Bush administration he has the political clout necessary to carry out his Judea and Samaria withdrawal.
“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. “They do not see him as the strongman Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to them.”
Olmert leads a slim governing coalition of 67 out of 120 Knesset seats. Typically, Israeli governments composed of ongoing coalitions with fewer than 70 seats are 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 Judea and Samaria withdrawal plan gets closer to implementation. According to yesterday’s Haaretz poll, 83 percent of Shas voters oppose the evacuation.
If Shas bolts, 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 cancelled or postponed.
Polls here have shown dwindling support for Olmert’s government and withdrawal plan.
One survey, commissioned two weeks ago by a local company and supervised by American strategist Arthur Finkelstein, revealed 70 percent of the general Israeli population oppose a Judea and Samaria withdrawal. Some 65 to 70 percent of those who backed last summer’s Gaza evacuation now object to Olmert’s Judea and Samaria pullout plan.
Another poll commissioned a week earlier by the Haaretz newspaper found only 35 percent of the Israeli public is pleased with Olmert’s performance as prime minister. Israeli leaders typically enjoy wide public support in the early stages of their terms.
Ten months ago, Israel evacuated the entire Gaza Strip. Since then, rockets have been fired regularly into nearby Jewish communities, Hamas has been elected to power and both Israeli and Palestinian officials have stated al-Qaida has infiltrated the territory. Israel last week sent ground troops back into Gaza. Also, Egypt recently announced the terrorists who carried out April’s deadly triple-bomb blasts in the Sinai resort town of Dahab trained for the operation in the Gaza Strip with local Palestinians.
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