US President George W. Bush gave qualified support yesterday to a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank to a border of its own choosing, if negotiations with Palestinians prove unfeasible.
At a joint press conference after their much anticipated meeting in Washington, Mr Bush stressed the desirability of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
However, Mr Bush acknowledged the difficulty of Israel achieving a peace agreement with a Hamas government.
"How can you have two states side by side in peace if one of the partners does not recognise the other state's right to exist?" he asked.
In such a case, he said, Mr Olmert's "bold ideas" offer an alternative way forward.
"While any final-status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes," said Mr Bush, "the Prime Minister's ideas could be an important step towards the peace we both support."
Mr Olmert proposes evacuation of most Israeli settlements on the West Bank while reinforcing selected settlements.
He accepted Mr Bush's urging to meet moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas soon and said he would "exhaust all efforts" to arrive at a negotiated agreement.
However, Mr Olmert said, this could not be achieved unless the Hamas Government first recognised Israel's right to exist and renounced violence. If that happened, "they will find us a willing partner in peace".
He indicated he would explore the possibility of negotiations for the rest of this year before making a unilateral move.
In the past, Mr Olmert has referred to the line Israel would fall back to in a unilateral withdrawal as the "final" border, a position Washington rejects.
*Sigh* When will Israel pull their head out of the sand? So sad to see, really, but I know it is ushering His return, so I rejoice for that.