VIDEO - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday 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," Olmert told members of the House of Representatives and Senate gathered in the House chamber.
'The prime minister of Israel' (Photo: Reuters)
"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 added, alluding to promised US Support.
He said the West Bank withdrawal is vital to Israel's security and the cause of peace and cannot go forward without US Support.
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. Daniel Wultz's parents sat in the House chamber, sobbing, as Olmert mentioned their son.
In a policy shift on Tuesday, the White House gave unexpected 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 George W. Bush praised what he called Olmert's "bold ideas" for acting on its own in the event that talks founder on the internationally backed Road Map peace plan.
From the US Capitol podium on Wednesday, Olmert called on the moderate Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, to seek a negotiated solution - the preferred route for both Olmert and Bush.
'Iran a threat to Israel's existence'
"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.
If the Palestinians "ignore our outstretched hand for peace," Olmert said, "Israel will seek other alternatives to promote our future and our prospects of hope in the Middle East."
Star of the Capitol (Photo: Reuters)
Referring to Iran, Olmert said that the Islamic republic poses a threat to Israel's existence and he urged swift international action to curb its nuclear program.
"For us this is an existential threat. A threat to which we cannot consent. But it is not Israel's threat alone. It is a threat to all those committed to stability in the Middle East and the well-being of the world at large," Olmert said.
"A nuclear Iran means a terrorist state could achieve the primary mission for which terrorists live and die: The mass destruction of innocent human life. This challenge, which I believe is the test of our time, is one the West cannot afford to fail," he said. "History will judge our generation by the actions we take now."
After the two men met on Tuesday, Bush said 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 Bush's call for negotiations. But he rejected the notion of an imposed solution.
"President Bush said the first option is negotiation," Erekat told The Associated Press. "There is no other option."
Addressing Congress members (Photo: Reuters)
Olmert, making his first visit to the US since winning election in March, told Congress that Israel has learned it must give up some of its dreams in the interest of a secure future for a Jewish democratic state.
"We hope and pray that our Palestinian neighbors will also awaken," he said.
In Jerusalem, Justice Minister Haim Ramon 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," Ramon told Israel Radio. "This will be a year of diplomacy."
"First negotiations, and after the negotiations, if it doesn't succeed and it becomes clear that there is no (Palestinian) partner, we will move ahead with the consolidation plan," Ramon said.
Olmert has given Abbas a tall order for proving Palestinian commitment to negotiating a final deal. Abbas would have to disarm Palestinian militant groups; the
Palestinian government would have to recognize Israel; and previous agreements would have to be fully put in place.
'More moving than Clinton and Mandela'
Fighting has intensifying between Abbas loyalists and Hamas gunmen, and Hamas has refused to moderate its stance on Israel, raising questions about the Palestinian president's ability to deliver.
Abbas refused to disarm Palestinian factions even before Hamas swept to power in January parliamentary elections, fearing that would provoke civil war. Hamas has rejected international demands that it lay down its guns, recognize Israel and honor previous peace agreements.
Olmert told reporters he would meet with Abbas, but did not say when.
In his appearance with Bush, Olmert reaffirmed his ideas for Israel's final borders: The major Jewish settlement blocs on the West Bank where most of the 250,000 settlers live would become part of Israel, with most other settlements dismantled.
Following Olmert's speech before Congress, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said it was more moving than speeches by former US President Bill Clinton and African leader Nelson Mandela.
It was a speech representing a partnership of faith on the part of two fighting countries, a number of senators concluded as they left the room.
But has Olmert managed to obtain the Bush administration's support for his far-reaching plan? Only time will tell.
Yitzhak Benhorin and Reuters contributed to the report