• Bush capped Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Washington with a cautious endorsement of Israel’s plan for annexation of large swathes of Palestinian territory including major settlement blocs and about 80% of Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
  • Bush hailed Olmert’s “bold moves,” but the visit still highlighted a potential divide between U.S. and Israeli approaches, as well as between the White House and Congressional Republicans.
  • On the ground in the occupied territories, humanitarian conditions continue to deteriorate, and desperation and violence are on the rise.
  • A new Palestinian initiative raises the possibility of a referendum on accepting a Palestinian state in territory occupied in 1967, implicitly recognizing Israel.
  • Bush promised to defend Israel if it is attacked by Iran; Olmert pushed for international action against Iran, and said he and Bush see eye to eye on the Iran crisis.

Ehud Olmert’s high-profile visit to Washington succeeded in winning support for his version of the Sharon-initiated plan for a unilateral Israeli move in the West Bank. The plan would remove about 60,000 settlers from dozens of scattered settlements, while annexing huge swathes of land including three major settlement blocs populated by about 160,000 settlers, to Israel. Despite Israeli claims, all the settlements – the small scattered “outposts” and the huge city-sized suburban-style settlements outside of Jerusalem – are equally illegal under international law, UN resolutions and the Geneva Conventions.

The plan includes imposing a unilaterally determined border between Israel (which currently has no acknowledged borders) and a putative Palestinian state. According to Israel’s foreign minister, the border would largely follow the route of the Apartheid Wall Israel has built throughout the occupied West Bank. According to the United Nations, that border would mean Israeli annexation of about 15% of West Bank territory and the vast majority of its scarce water aquifers.

The plan is based on Sharon’s 2002 model which called for an Israeli land grab in the West Bank in the form of legalizing major settlement blocs, and an end to the Palestinian right of return as a quid-pro-quo for Israel’s settler pull-out and troop withdrawal from the streets of Gaza. However, since the 2005 Gaza “redeployment” Israel continues its occupation by controlling all of Gaza’s entry and exit, airspace, coastal waters, economy, water and electricity, as well as by continual military attacks and “targeted assassinations” of Gazan military and political leaders with high numbers of accompanying civilian casualties. In a letter to Sharon in April 2004, Bush accepted that deal.

Olmert’s plan is based on Sharon’s vision. Former President Jimmy Carter, writing in USA Today about the plan, said “It is inconceivable that any Palestinian, Arab leader, or any objective member of the international community could accept this illegal action as a permanent solution to the continuing altercation in the Middle East. This confiscation of land is to be carried out without resorting to peace talks with the Palestinians, and in direct contravention of the ‘road map for peace,’ which President Bush helped to initiate and has strongly supported.”

But because it envisions a pull-out from a part of the economically and strategically more valuable West Bank, rather than Sharon’s Gaza pull-out, Olmert’s plan is politically riskier within the fractious Israeli political scene. And Olmert, who was Sharon’s deputy until the general’s stroke in January 2006, does not have any of Sharon’s military credentials. So the plan faces stronger challenges in Israel.

Bush was also not enthusiastic about all aspects of the plan, especially its reliance on unilateral Israeli action. During Olmert’s visit, Bush praised the plan as “bold” and “creative.” But Bush is concerned about his record low poll ratings and growing international isolation vis-à-vis Iraq, and is therefore more cautious in how he endorses Olmert’s plan. Bush’s acceptance of the plan was more conditional than his enthusiastic embrace of Sharon’s Gaza pull-out, especially as he urged Olmert to at least go through the motions of diplomatic contacts with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Trying to repair Iraq-frayed and Iran-threatened relations with European and key Arab allies, Bush pushed Israel to engage with the Palestinians before moving unilaterally. It is not evidence of a serious U.S. commitment to real Palestinian-Israeli negotiations (which have stalled for the last three years). But it does indicate U.S. concern about appearing to supporting Israeli unilateralism. The Washington Post described Bush telling Israel to “at least make the appearance of seeking a Palestinian partner before they can declare none exists.” That might open the way for a small crack, in the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

Bush’s domestic and international political concerns also are leading to his new willingness to split from his Republican allies in Congress, who hold some of the most ferociously hard-line pro-Israeli views dominating the House of Representatives. That was obvious in the administration’s opposition to the overwhelming House vote for the radical Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2006, that passed the House the day before Olmert’s arrival. The bill would end all U.S. diplomatic contacts with any Palestinian officials, Hamas members or not; would prohibit almost all humanitarian assistance to Palestinians; would designate West Bank and Gaza territory under the Palestinian Authority as a “terrorist sanctuary;” would close the Palestinian information office and deny visas to all Palestinian officials, and more. Ironically, if it became law the bill would prohibit exactly the kind of “engagement” with Palestinian President Abbas that Bush was urging on the Israeli leader. Support for the bill, which was mobilized by AIPAC, the most powerful component of the pro-Israeli lobbies, was overwhelming, and crossed party lines. Despite AIPAC pressures however, (including an AIPAC staffer accusing Rep. Betty McCollum of “supporting terrorism” because of her no vote) there were 37 votes against the bill, as well as many “present” votes and non-voting Representatives. Rep. McCollum stood up to the lobby with an unprecedented open letter stating that AIPAC literature and staff would not be welcome in her office until they apologized. Many members who spoke against the bill referred to arguments put forward by the member organizations of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.

On the ground, the economic crisis caused by the cut-off of aid and the physical as well as political isolation of the Palestinians in the wake of the Hamas election, has exploded. A May 7 World Bank study reported that more than 50% of Palestinians in the occupied territories are now living under the international poverty line of $2 per day; in Gaza more than 70% are below the poverty line. Unemployment is officially 34% across the territories, in Gaza alone it is 44%, rising to 55% whenever the frequent Israeli closures of the border crossings are imposed. With the cut-off of funds from international donors, and especially with Israel’s illegal withholding of tax revenues it owes to the PA, over 40% of all Palestinian Authority employees have not been paid for three months. That has particularly dangerous implications in Gaza, where more than half the entire workforce is employed by the PA; many of those now unpaid employees are the sole support of extended families of up to 15 people or even more.

During a high-level Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. conference in Washington several weeks ago, U.S. officials were asked what was their plan – what did they think would be accomplished by cutting aid and isolating the Palestinians because they had elected Hamas? The State Department’s top Middle East official answered “we don’t have a plan. We don’t need a plan.” Israeli security officials themselves acknowledge that anti-Hamas sanctions won’t end the crisis; the chief of staff of the Israeli military, Lt. General Dan Halutz, told the Knesset this week that economic sanctions would not topple Hamas nor diminish support for it.

Given the rising levels of impoverishment and isolation, it is hardly surprising that violence is rising throughout the occupied territories. Armed conflicts between feuding political factions have increased, along with a broader violence-producing a break-down of communal solidarity and the shredding of Palestine’s already stressed social fabric. Further, Israel has escalated its military attacks on Palestinians, including the killing of at least four unarmed civilians and wounding over 50 more in a raid in Ramallah, as well as arresting a top Hamas militant on the day of Olmert’s meeting with Bush.

The day after Olmert left Washington, Palestinian President Abbas announced a new political initiative, calling for a Palestinian referendum that would articulate a Palestinian understanding of a two-state solution and of recognition of Israel. The proposal was for a vote on the Hamas-Fatah agreement hammered out by leaders of both factions imprisoned together in an Israeli jail over the last two months. The text specifies establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and refers to the Arab League’s 2002 Beirut summit statement that calls for full Arab recognition of Israel when it ends its occupation of the 1967 territories. The statement is understood to implicitly recognize Israel. Some Hamas leaders have already agreed; others view it as a violation of the election’s legitimacy. Palestinian pollsters believe it would pass with a strong majority. Certainly it would provide additional popular support to the beleaguered President Abbas, but it would also provide a democratically legitimate kind of political cover for Hamas and other leaders who may want to shift their rhetoric to reflect public opinion, but have been unwilling to violate their earlier commitments and principles.

Such a referendum could provide an important moment for asserting a new Palestinian consensus, with the possibility of opening new negotiations. But such a vote would have only partial legitimacy, involving only those Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza (maybe, or maybe not, including occupied Arab East Jerusalem). It would exclude Palestinian Israelis, as well as the millions of Palestinian refugees and exiles in the far-flung diaspora. So while it could be an important indicator of collective opinion, or even consensus in the occupied territories, that would be an indicator of the opinion of only one sector of the Palestinian people.

During his Washington visit, Olmert also reasserted Israel’s hard-line approach to Iran. Greeted with applause in Congress, he said that “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 the one the West cannot afford to fail.” In language reminiscent of Bush’s build-up for war in Iraq, Olmert said “history will judge our generation by the actions we take now … the international community will be measured not by its intentions but by its results.” Bush restated his pledge to defend Israel if it is attacked by Iran, which some analysts saw as a subtle warning to Israel not to take the military initiative against Iran. But Olmert also claimed that he and Bush saw “eye to eye” on Iran.

Whether or not that is true, Israel remains a major player in the Iran nuclear crisis: at times directly threatening a military strike on Iran, at other times cheerleading for a militarized U.S. response. And Israel’s own unacknowledged but widely known nuclear arsenal remains a key provocation across the Middle East region. Immediate diplomacy – including direct U.S.-Iran talks – is urgently needed to resolve the current crisis. But in the longer term, only creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East – with no exceptions – has the potential for a permanent peace.

Establishment of such a zone is already part of U.S. law: UN Security Council Resolution 687, ending the 1991 U.S. war against Iraq, calls for “establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles to deliver them.” That resolution was drafted by U.S. diplomats, and its passage by the Council makes it part of international, as well as U.S. domestic law. It’s time we held the U.S. accountable to its own commitments.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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