Donald Macintyre: How Britain's warm words disguise a cold reality for Olmert

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, Ehud Olmert will leave London having got from Tony Blair most of what he could reasonably expect.

It's true that Mr Blair - correctly - laid great emphasis on negotiations as the best potential solution to the rapidly deteriorating situation. It's true, too, that he did not - any more than President George Bush - explicitly endorse the unilateral "realignment" plan on which Mr Olmert fought the elections in March and which the Palestinians, from Mahmoud Abbas, the President, down, oppose.

But, by joining Mr Olmert in setting the highest of hurdles for such negotiations to take place, and by expressing his agreement that in the absence of negotiations other steps would be needed, he gave Mr Olmert the broad public endorsement he was hoping for.

Nor did Mr Blair exactly dwell on the referendum over a two-state solution on which Mahmoud Abbas has staked his presidency and about which Mr Olmert was so dismissive last week.

Behind the scenes however, it may have been a little different. Senior British officials in parallel conversations with their Israeli counterparts did, it seems, stress that the prisoners' document to be put to a referendum - of which Mr Olmert has also been sharply dismissive and which seeks to commit to a two-state solution - might constitute an advance which Israel ought to take seriously, however imperfect its wording.

And that if Mr Abbas were to win the referendum, it might be progress towards the conditions for negotiations Mr Blair kept insisting yesterday he wanted to see.

British officials made two other points; first they had deliberately avoided lavish endorsements of the referendum plan because such a thing was probably the last thing Mr Abbas needed if he were to win; and secondly that if negotiations did not happen, European endorsement could not be taken for granted for whatever borders Mr Olmert chose unilaterally to fix in his realignment plan.

Those around Mr Blair insist that Mr Olmert did not give the impression he was merely "going through the motions" in relation to negotiations.

But that is the impression many Israeli politicians and commentators have had so far.

It is too early to say whether the clear but polite messages he - or at least his close lieutenants - received yesterday from the British officials and which they will no doubt hear in the Elysée today, were robust enough to divert Mr Olmert from the rapid advance to unilateralism that he has hitherto seemed determined to pursue.

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