The real coalition: U.S. and Israel

Last month’s election results in Israel, with Ehud Olmert’s much-chastened Kadima party still poised to pursue Ariel Sharon’s vision of unilateral peace, was a welcome development for the Bush administration, which clearly favors the new party and hopes its West Bank withdrawal plan will eventually reduce tensions in the region.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be friction between the two allies. On the contrary: Olmert’s expanded unilateral vision, while a godsend to an administration whose broader regional policy continues in a downward spiral, will produce numerous points at which U.S. and Israeli interests conflict.

Olmert — who will meet with Bush in Washington on May 23 — is counting on a unified, supportive American Jewish community to help smooth over those difficulties.

But achieving that unity will be complicated, not because of a lack of support for getting out of the West Bank among American Jews, but because a supportive majority that’s only peripherally involved in Mideast issues is often shouted down by a well-organized, aggressive and effective right-wing minority.

In private contacts with American Jewish leaders, Israeli officials are making their wishes clear: They want strong, unequivocal backing for a unilateral peace plan that will be far more wrenching and contentious for Israel than last year’s Gaza pullout.

That support, they believe, will be necessary to keep the administration behind a plan that goes against the longstanding U.S. insistence that only bilateral negotiations can bring about peace between Israel and her neighbors.

When Sharon announced his Gaza disengagement plan more than two years ago, the Bush administration, still nominally committed to its go-nowhere road map plan for Palestinian statehood, was lukewarm, but eventually accepted the plan — with caveats, such as its demand for a modicum of coordination with the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon and Washington had their differences as the Gaza plan moved forward, but they kept those disputes private.

The West Bank proposal, spelled out in unusual

detail before last week’s election, will produce a similar dynamic, but with even higher stakes.

The administration will go along with Olmert’s “convergence” plan, which calls for Israel to be out of most of the West Bank by 2010 while reinforcing the major settlements. But it will also make demands on things like coordinating the pullout with the Palestinian Authority, keeping the route of the security fence as close as possible to Israel’s 1967 borders and seeking an agreement with the Palestinians before declaring permanent borders.

Israeli leaders believe they will have an easier time keeping those conditions reasonable and keeping relations with Washington on an even keel if the Jewish community here, and particularly influential groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are firmly and assertively on board.

Consistent U.S. support will also be a factor, they believe, in beating back withdrawal opponents in Israel, who will seek to capitalize on the trauma of settlers wrenched from their homes and the turning over of religiously important sites to the Palestinians.

Vocal support from the mainstream groups, Israeli leaders believe, will also be a critical element in countering an aggressive campaign in the media and in the U.S. Congress by settlers and ultra-nationalist groups in Israel and their supporters here — both Jewish and evangelical.

Israeli officials are confident that the American Jewish community as a whole will support the West Bank withdrawal, just as it supported the Gaza pullout, but they worry that much of that support will be silent, while opponents such as the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel will be anything but.

Opponents will also get a boost from the increasingly vocal Christian Zionist groups, which oppose all new concessions of land to the Palestinians.

At the same time, groups on the left will be ambivalent — unhappy that facts on the ground may be changed without negotiations, uneasy about the extent of territory Israel will retain, but also aware that with Hamas in the driver’s seat of the Palestinian Authority, unilateralism may be the only way to break through a stalemate that always threatens to turn into renewed bloodletting.

That may mute the voices of the pro-peace process.

The situation could get trickier when it comes to major Jewish organizations, especially the umbrella groups that included diverse constituent groups.

The Conference of Presidents, which includes major groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Union for Reform Judaism but also small right-of-center groups allied with the settlers, eventually endorsed the Gaza withdrawal, but several major leaders felt the group had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do it.

The battle will be all the tougher when Israel starts pulling out of a much bigger and more strategic chunk of territory, closer to its population centers and not as easily cordoned off, land that has religious and historic resonance for many Jews. Once Olmert formalizes his coalition (which was expected to happen Thursday, May 4), look for his government to begin an intensive outreach campaign aimed at the silent Jewish center in this country.

And look for Israeli officials to ratchet up the pressure on mainstream Jewish organizations to quickly and unequivocally endorse a plan that may be full of promise for the embattled Jewish state — but also full of risk.

James D. Besser is a Washington correspondent for Jewish newspapers across the country.