President Bush offered guarded support Tuesday for the Israeli prime minister's plan to concentrate settlers in more heavily populated areas of the West Bank, enabling Israel to proceed with its own plans if the Palestinians are unwilling to negotiate with Israel.
At the same time, both Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed a desire to achieve their goal of a peaceful coexistence for Israelis and Palestinians through negotiations.
But Olmert made it clear that he will proceed with his own plans for charting Israel's borders in the next "two to three years" if the Hamas-led Palestinian government refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. And Bush's support should strengthen Olmert's hand.
For Israel, analysts say, the first meeting of Bush and the new prime minister offered a go-ahead for Olmert's proposal to withdraw 70,000 Israelis from less populated areas of the West Bank and concentrate them in more heavily populated areas, part of his "convergence plan."
Between private meetings with Olmert, Bush praised the prime minister's plans as "bold ideas."
"The prime minister's ideas could be an important step toward the peace we both support," the president said in a public appearance in the East Room of the White House, with Bush insisting that he has not abandoned a "road map" for peace that he has supported for four years. "Our preferred option . . . is for there to be a negotiated settlement."
Olmert pledged to pursue negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but suggested at the same time that Abbas' options are limited by a Palestinian parliament now controlled by Hamas, an organization labeled as terrorist by the United States that has an avowed goal of destroying Israel.
"I intend to exhaust every possibility," Olmert said. "However, we will not enter into any kind of partnership with a party which refuses to recognize our right to live in peace and security. . . . If we come to the conclusion that no progress is possible, we will be compelled to try a different route."
This was the first meeting of Bush and Olmert since the Israeli leader was sworn in May 4, following a stroke that disabled the former Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, who remains incapacitated.
Bush and Sharon had forged a strong relationship, despite sharp differences over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The White House had billed this meeting with Olmert as a "getting-to-know-you session," downplaying any prospects for advancement of the peace process.
But this proved to be far more than a social meeting for two leaders who already had met in 1998, when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and Bush was governor of Texas.
"I think they both know what they wanted," Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum, said after the meeting. "Bush got an indication from Olmert that he would meet with Abbas and attempt negotiations. And Olmert got a conditional approval on his convergence plan subject to his inability to negotiate successfully with Abbas."
Olmert was instrumental in carrying out an initiative led by Sharon that Bush heartily supported, the forced removal of thousands of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip last year. But since then, the emergence of a Palestinian government controlled by Hamas has hampered the peace process, with new infighting plaguing Gaza.
"We will make an effort," said Olmert, promising to meet with Abbas in the near future. "We accept the sincerity of Mahmoud Abbas. He is genuine. . . . We hope that he will have the power to meet the requirement of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians."
An issue of equally pressing concern has emerged as a critical part of any U.S.-Israel talks Iran's determination to develop its own nuclear capabilities over the objections of the U.S. and European nations. Iran says it is enriching uranium only to produce nuclear energy, but the West believes that Iran wants to build nuclear weapons.
"This is a moment of truth," Olmert said. "It is still not too late to prevent it from happening. ... There is a major threat posed by the Iranians. This is something that needs to be stopped."
Bush reiterated a pledge: "In the event of any attack on Israel, the U.S. would come to Israel's aid." He also reiterated: "Our primary objective is to solve this problem diplomatically."
If Iran's nuclear position poses a standoff with the West, Olmert's proposal for redistributing the Israeli population of the West Bank could offer a breakthrough.
Olmert is advancing his "convergence plan," which calls for a withdrawal of 70,000 settlers from sparsely populated areas of the West Bank while Israel maintains control over several settlements housing about 200,000 Jews in Palestinian areas. Olmert and his new Kadima party won election in March with a platform of taking unilateral action to secure Israel's borders if the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority refuses to recognize Israel and forgo terrorism.
With a visit to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, including a speech to a joint session of Congress, the Israeli prime minister will conclude a three-day tour that included a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.