Time to check Israel's convergence plan

Its characterisation by Bush as "an important step towards peace" has been hailed in Tel Aviv as better than what was expected before Olmert's US visit

Gulf News

Ever since Ariel Sharon created Kadima as the political platform for a unilateral determination of the final frontiers of a larger, more defensible Israel, there has been some ambiguity about the degree of assent secured by him from the United States for the "convergence plan".

The plan is a code phrase for the permanent annexation of the major consolidated Jewish colonies. Kadima survived Sharon's incapacitating stroke and flourished in the first post-Sharon elections. The magical moment when Sharon's successor negotiates the consent of the US for its new strategic objectives has now arrived.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's first visit to Washington sheds useful light on the degree of endorsement signalled by President George W. Bush.

Olmert's interaction with the top echelon of the administration, the Congress and the media would also illuminate some dark corners of his thinking about the political and economic future of what will be left of the Palestine of the Mandate.

It's clearly a race against time if Arab diplomacy wants to revive the fading dream of two sovereign states living side by side in peace and security.

The land available for a possible Palestinian state risks shrinking from 44 per cent mapped out by the United Nations to about 20 per cent, the price Israel demands to scale down the goal of "Eretz Yisrael". Olmert has already asked the US to underwrite this latest land grab.

The rest of the world contemplates it with horror. Even in the US, the Kadima strategy to turn away from the Arab world is frequently seen as a misguided prelude to a period of great instability and strife.

Jordanian concerns

There were some anxious diplomatic manoeuvres on the eve of Olmert's visit to Washington. Alarmed by the Jordan valley component of the disengagement plan, King Abdullah conveyed his concern to Bush.

With the prospect of a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert and perhaps as preparatory to it, Shimon Peres and Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, talked to Abbas at the World Economic Forum at Sharm Al Shaikh.

Egypt's foreign minister, Aboul Gaith, tried to slow the drift into Kadima's "convergence" and address some of Israel's reservations about the Quartet's roadmap by reviving some of its key ideas. These were at best tentative moves with no assured outcome or forward movement.

Self-serving judgment

Since Olmert's main selling point of his convergence plan in Washington was Israel's self-serving judgment that it has no negotiating partner from the Palestinian side, he used CNN to describe Abbas as "powerless" to conduct any serious or responsible negotiations.

Bush, it was said, would table new ideas to revive the peace process. In actual practice, Bush and Olmert had no difficulty in agreeing that Hamas could not be a dialogue partner unless it recognises Israel, abandons the right of armed resistance and endorses all previous agreements.

Abbas' impeccable credentials to undertake further negotiations were, however, not dismissed by Bush as lightly as Olmert had tried to do.

The American position on the Kadima plan was carefully crafted. Its characterisation by Bush as "bold" and as "an important step towards peace", should negotiations recommended by him falter, has been hailed in Israel as better than what was expected before the visit.

In the context of a final settlement, Bush cautioned Olmert against excessive unilateralism. Predictably, Olmert told Bush publicly that Israel could not wait indefinitely for an agreement with the Palestinians.

Israel hopes to turn the Iran crisis to its advantage in winning Washington's support for the convergence plan. Its advocacy of a tough Iran policy resonates well with the most influential members of the Bush team.

A defensive, almost apologetic, posture constrained Arab-Islamic diplomacy in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The crisis of US policy in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, is not likely to abate without an increased sensitivity in Washington to Arab-Islamic opinion.

The regional situation offers fresh opportunities to provide Abbas with the unqualified support that he needs in any further negotiations with Israel.

Arab governments must rise above all parochial interests and rally behind the Palestinians in what may well be their last ditch stand to secure a free and sovereign homeland.

The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.