Olmert's White House Visit to 'Set Stage' for Convergence Talks

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's upcoming trip to Washington is intended to "set the stage" for future discussions on his convergence plan, a senior advisor to the prime minister said on Wednesday.

Olmert is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House next Tuesday. It will be their first meeting since Olmert took office two weeks ago. High on the agenda is the Iranian nuclear issue and Olmert's "convergence" plan -- a withdrawal and "consolidation" of Israelis from parts of the West Bank.

"It's an introductory visit," Olmert advisor Dr. Ra'anan Gissin, said in a telephone interview. "President Bush will study our proposal for the consolidation [convergence] plan. [It will] set the stage for future discussions."

According to Gissin, it took many meetings between President Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before the two reached an understanding on Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements.

In fact, Sharon used a "letter of understanding" from Bush to win approval for his disengagement plan from Israeli parliamentarians.

The so-called convergence plan is modeled after the disengagement, which uprooted 25 Jewish communities and left the Gaza Strip totally in Palestinian hands.

National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, who was heavily involved in planning last year's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, said last week that no plan has been formulated yet.

But according to statements and press reports, the plan is intended to establish Israel's borders by completing construction of Israel's security barrier in the West Bank, removing of tens of thousands of Israelis living in up to 100 communities on the Palestinian side of the barrier and consolidating them in several large settlement blocs.

Shaul Goldstein, mayor of Gush Etzion, one of the large settlement blocs just outside Jerusalem, said there is no plan yet, although its purpose and probably boundaries are generally understood.

American backing for such a plan is essential. It's not clear who would pay for the withdrawal but Israel undoubtedly would need financial help to relocate so many Israelis.

Olmert has pledged to try to reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians but has given only about a year for it to happen.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to return to the negotiating table earlier this week.

But Israel has said that with a Hamas government in power, negotiations with Abbas would hold little value. Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of the State of Israel, has so far refused to recognize Israel, abandon terrorism and abide by understandings already reached between Israel and the P.A.

There were media reports on Wednesday that Hamas might agree to talks with Israel -- without recognizing the Jewish state -- in an attempt to end the Western financial boycott of the P.A. That boycott has caused a severe shortage of goods in the P.A. areas.

But Gissin dismissed such talk, saying Hamas was just "playing with words."

Gissin said a meeting between Olmert and Abbas depends on the outcome of Olmert's talks in Washington.

"Abbas has to deliver," said Gissin. Israel wants to exhaust all possibilities for bilateral meetings but it is still holding Abbas to certain commitments he made previously such as the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure.

Israel is committed to the roadmap, he said, in reference to the peace plan that envisions a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The disengagement of last summer and the convergence plan are "default programs" because of there is no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate, Gissin said.

In related news, Israel opened the main border crossing for goods into and out of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

It is the first time Palestinians have been able to export goods for weeks. Karni, the only goods crossing from Gaza into Israel, is the main lifeline from Gaza to the rest of the world.

Since the beginning of the year the crossing has been closed more than 50 days, open only sporadically for the import of humanitarian and medical aid.

The move comes a day after Palestinians fired a Katyusha rocket at southern Israel, which landed on a chicken coop in the agricultural border community of Netiv Ha'Asara, killing 30 chickens but not injuring anyone.

See earlier story:
Rain of Rockets Torments Southern Israeli Communities (Mar. 7, 2006)