A 'get acquainted' visit for Israeli leader

Olmert's first US trip as prime minister comes as Israel pursues unilateral approach to Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who makes his first visit to the White House Tuesday, may have some big ideas for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Think setting of final borders - unilaterally if need be - evacuation of settlers, and more disengagement from Palestinians.

But he's expected to keep the details of what he's thinking in his pocket for now, especially aspects that would involve major US financial commitment. The new prime minister's three-day trip to Washington - culminating in a speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday - should really be a "getting to know you" visit, US officials suggested, and Israeli officials appear to have come around to that thinking.

"Olmert is relatively unknown [in Washington], the major players in his government are relatively unknown, so you have to have that first set of discussions before launching into the details," says Bernard Reich, a specialist in the Middle East conflict at George Washington University. "There were plans to move more aggressively and optimistically, but they've dialed back from that a bit, especially from the notion of talking dollars."

Mr. Olmert was sworn into office less than a month ago, after his new centrist Kadima Party won elections in March. Kadima was started by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to move beyond his old political home, the conservative Likud Party. The new party would advance plans for withdrawal from most occupied territories and unilaterally secure Israel's borders.

Israel observers say this visit might have been the venue for pressing the specifics of the disengagement plan if Mr. Sharon were still at the helm. But that the leader, who was so familiar to Washington, has passed from the stage has set things back a bit, they add. "If this were Sharon, no doubt they'd be talking dollars" and other means of US support for the plan, Mr. Reich says. "But Olmert just isn't that strong yet."

President Bush may have his own reasons not to want to hear too much about new aid requests. He's facing rising costs of everything from Iraq, Katrina relief, and his plan to deploy National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border.

What Bush does want to hear from Olmert, US officials say, is how the prime minister sees his plan dovetailing with Bush's vision of "two states, side by side, living in peace" that he laid out in 2004 and has held to since. In particular, the US wants to hear how Olmert envisions achieving peace through unilateral moves - while encouraging the Israeli leader not to slam the door on an eventual return to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Olmert has said his government has no Palestinian counterpart to work with, especially with the new Hamas government in power. The White House would never suggest the Israelis engage with Hamas while the Islamist government refuses to recognize Israel, and continues to support violence against the Jewish state.

But as part of the so-called "Quartet" of powers supporting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations - the US is under pressure not to go along with more unilateral Israeli moves. Some maintain such moves could make a peace settlement more difficult.

But the White House has continued to hold out Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a leader the parties can work with. Some observers took it as a bid to smooth Olmert's visit here then, when Israel's new foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, met with Mr. Abbas in the margins of a regional economic forum in Egypt Sunday. There, he announced that an Abbas-Olmert meeting was likely to take place after Olmert's return from Washington.

That meeting is a sign that "the Israelis have decided they need to adjust their approach and see what they can do to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas," says Arthur Hughes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near East affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

After Hamas's victory, it seemed the Israelis might have "written off Abbas," Mr. Hughes says. But the meeting and other Israeli steps - including freeing up some Palestinian tax revenues for humanitarian aid to Palestinians - suggests Olmert will present a new approach to Washington and the Europeans.

"They will say they are trying everything they can to strengthen the [Palestinian] moderates, and if that doesn't work," he adds, "they can say we tried and failed."

Iran can also be expected to pop up in the discussions. "Iran has been intruding on the calculus" in US-Israeli relations "for a long time," says Hughes. Olmert is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Hughes adds that the very public belligerence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toward Israel means there will be "a bigger security-defense component [to this visit] than would have otherwise been the case."

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