WASHINGTON – Israeli 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 and Senate gathered in the House chamber.
"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 said, alluding to promised U.S. 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.
Olmert also drew long applause for tough words condemning whet he said is Iran's drive to build nuclear weapons and the escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric from its leader.
"If we don't take Iran's bellicose rhetoric seriously now, we will be forced to take its nuclear aggression seriously later," the prime minister said.
Olmert said the West Bank withdrawal is vital to Israel's security and the cause of peace and cannot go forward without U.S. support.
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.
The president 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 U.S. Capitol podium on Wednesday, Olmert called on the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to seek a negotiated solution -- the preferred route for both Olmert and Bush.
"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 the prospects of hope in the Middle East."
Hamas' victory in January Palestinian parliamentary elections damped peace prospects because of the group's violently anti-Israel ideology. The Bush administration considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization, and has acknowledged the obstacles Israel is liable to face in trying to make peace with Abbas, who was elected separately last year.
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."
Olmert, making his first visit to the U.S. 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, a senior Cabinet member close to Olmert 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," Haim 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.
After six hours of meetings and dinner with Bush that 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.
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 an effort to smooth the way, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch is expected to hold talks with the two sides during a trip to the region and then intends to return along with White House official Elliott Abrams for further talks, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday.
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.