Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a joint meeting of Congress today that Israel would be a “willing partner in peace” with the Palestinians but would draw its own borders in the West Bank should it conclude it has no negotiating partner.
“We cannot wait for the Palestinians forever,” Mr. Olmert told members of the House and Senate gathered in the House chamber.
“Our deepest wish is to build a better future for our region, hand in hand with a Palestinian partner, but if not, we will move forward, but not alone,” he said, alluding to promised U.S. support.
Mr. Olmert drew a sustained standing ovation when he declared, “We will not yield to terror,” a reference to suicide attacks on Israelis such as those that killed a 16-year-old American high school student observing the Passover holiday in Israel this year.
He also drew long applause for tough words condemning what he said is Iran’s drive to build nuclear weapons and the escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric from its leader.
“If we don’t take Iran’s bellicose rhetoric seriously now, we will be forced to take its nuclear aggression seriously later,” the prime minister said.
Mr. Olmert said the West Bank withdrawal is vital to Israel’s security and the cause of peace and cannot go forward without U.S. support.
In a policy shift yesterday, the White House gave backing to Israel’s plan to unilaterally set its borders with the Palestinians should their new Hamas leaders refuse to disarm and renounce their call for Israel’s destruction.
President Bush praised what he called Mr. Olmert’s “bold ideas” for Israel to act on its own in the event that talks founder on the internationally backed “road map” peace plan.
From the U.S. Capitol podium today, Mr. Olmert called on the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to seek a negotiated solution.
“With a genuine Palestinian partner for peace, I believe we can reach an agreement on all the issues that divide us,” the Israeli leader said.
Hamas’ victory in the January Palestinian parliamentary elections damped peace prospects because of the group’s anti-Israel ideology. The Bush administration considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization and has acknowledged the obstacles Israel is liable to face in trying to make peace through the Fatah faction’s Mr. Abbas.
After the two men met on Tuesday, Mr. Bush said Mr. Olmert’s ideas “could lead to a two-state solution if a pathway to progress on the road map is not opened in the period ahead.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, an Abbas ally, welcomed Mr. Bush’s call for negotiations, but he rejected the notion of an imposed solution.
“President Bush said the first option is negotiation,” Mr. Erekat said. “There is no other option.”
In Jerusalem, a senior Cabinet member close to Mr. Olmert said if Hamas does not recognize Israel and renounce violence within six months, Israel will move ahead with plans to unilaterally draw its final borders by 2010.
“If these things don’t happen, we won’t wait for years, but rather we will wait until the end of this year,” Haim Ramon told Israel Radio. “This will be a year of diplomacy.”