Israel’s border plan draws fire

Jewish organizations and leaders in the U.S. are divided over Israel’s plan to redraw the country’s borders on its own if it cannot quickly negotiate peace with the Palestinians, and are giving the White House conflicting advice about whether to support or fund the effort.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wanted a public pledge of support from President Bush when he visited Washington this week. The White House, however, has indicated an endorsement is premature. Olmert, who meets with Bush on Tuesday and addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, reportedly has dropped plans to ask during this trip for additional U.S. aid for the border plan.

The proposal presents Bush with a foreign policy headache abroad and a political dilemma at home.

In the United States, the realignment is widely opposed by conservative Jewish voters whom Bush has courted with strong support for Israeli security. Conservative Christian leaders, including television evangelist Pat Robertson, who back Bush have endorsed the expansion and defense of Jewish settlements.

If Olmert presses ahead, his plan would violate a main principle of the U.S.-backed plan for peace and the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state. Under the plan Bush helped to produce, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are supposed to take unilateral steps that prejudge final decisions about disputed territory.

Olmert’s approach would complicate the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians, now at a low point because of the election victory of militant Islamic leaders in January. Many Arab states oppose the plan, including important U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Jordan; European nations are wary.

The United States has avoided taking a public position. The Bush administration views Olmert’s visit as a chance to assess the prime minister’s resolve and preparation, White House and State Department officials said. They said the U.S. does not consider the plan to be completed.

Bush also wants to urge Olmert to try to negotiate with the Palestinian’s moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert says he cannot do that.

The nuclear threat posed by Iran will also be a main topic.

Olmert won elections in March with a promise to pull tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank while fortifying major Jewish settlement blocs.

Olmert says Israel prefers to negotiate, but will stake out its final borders with the West Bank if the Hamas-led Palestinian government does not recognize Israel and disarm. His program continues the policy of his predecessor and strong Bush ally Ariel Sharon, who has not recovered from a stroke in January.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, said he is a strong supporter of the president and would be disappointed if Bush backed a plan that, Lerner said, would intensify the threat against Israel and others and strengthen Hamas. Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide attacks on Israel and is classified by Israel and the United States as a terrorist group.

“We’re not for giving away land, especially when you get nothing for it,” Lerner said. “You don’t get peace, you don’t get security.”

Dov Hikind, a New York assemblyman, is urging supporters to tell the administration that Olmert’s plan is a sop to Hamas and will prove too expensive. Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, was in Israel on Friday to visit Jewish settlements that the border plan would threaten.

“I am seeing with my own eyes what Ehud Olmert plans to do, which would be absolutely horrible, unconscionable,” Hikind said by telephone. “I don’t want to see American tax dollars going for the purpose of expelling Jews from their homes.”

Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid at more than $2 billion a year. A full-scale withdrawal from the West Bank could cost $10 billion or more, and Olmert is expected to ask for U.S. help at some point.

Hikind led a group of 40 American Jews and evangelical Christians who camped with Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip last summer, before Israel unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and dismantled its settlements there. Gaza was seen as a step toward Sharon’s eventual goal of withdrawal from parts of the West Bank that he saw as indefensible and a long-term liability for Israel.

Several large, mainstream U.S. Jewish organizations support Olmert’s plan.

“We believe it is in the interest of the United States and Israel to try to resolve some of the dilemmas that occur in the area by giving greater certainty to Israel’s borders and making it easier for Israel to defend itself,” said Neil Goldstein, executive director of the 50,000-member American Jewish Congress.

© 2006 The Associated Press