Lieberman and Israel

Can I ask you about your thinking, and wider official thinking, in terms of Israel and the West Bank? Prime minister Sharon sought to stress that he had American support for an eventual annexation of at least certain areas of the West Bank, where most of the settlers live. Is that a realistic sense of American thinking? Would America back Israel in annexing the major settlement blocs? The official American thinking is opposition to settlements, but are there some nuances there?

This is a position that's moving, that is dynamic, and while, generally speaking, the American position is still that questions of borders, the territories, have to be negotiated here on the ground between the parties, there's a growing acceptance: The president's letter from 2004 certainly accepted that the US understands that the end result of this will not be to go back to the '67 borders, and that there was a reality and a justification for the major settlement blocs. That's reflected - I certainly share it personally - in a pretty solid bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress.

Will there be some dissent about it if it's done unilaterally?

Some, but I think the prevailing opinion here, particularly now with Hamas having won the elections on the Palestinian side, [is] that the Israeli government will be justified in taking unilateral action to secure defensible borders.

Ehud Olmert made plain the specifics of his "convergence" plan before the elections. If he acts truly dramatically, if he says, "We're pulling back basically to the security barrier, 7 percent or so of the West Bank, and we're annexing this territory," is there a potential for America to say, "Israel has set the contours of its permanent size. It's done this unilaterally because there's a terrorist regime on the other side, and we're prepared to endorse that." Is that possible?

There are different forms of endorsement so it's early in the process. My own sense of it is that Prime Minister Olmert will have to first develop support here [in Israel] for doing that, in so far as it means he'll have to converge many thousand people into the major settlement blocs, and then also make the case within the US and presumably within the international community insofar as they're open minded about it. But I think there'll be a receptive audience within the US government, congressional and executive, to that argument.

Now there are steps in this that are beyond where we are now. For instance, would the US acknowledge, accept the reality and even the desirability from an Israeli security point of view of that kind of action. I think the answer is: probably. The question nobody has reached or I haven't heard anybody reach is whether the US would accept that as a new international border. That's where most people are now, but of course it would certainly be a big step in that direction. I think certainly within Congress and the administration, and I would guess within the American people, there's a willingness to understand and support such a step by Israel.

Would annexing the Jordan Valley conceivably be part of that, or would America never endorse Israeli annexation or control of the Jordan Valley?

That's more difficult for me to answer. That's an opinion that the US is fuzzier, unformed on. My guess is that [permanent Israeli control there] would be a harder sell, but [there would] not [be opposition] for the presence of security personnel there.

The strongest support is for the major settlement blocs. Sharon helped to reshape or form a consensus in the US about this, as well as here [in Israel]. Sharon saw a forming consensus about this - a desire to change the status quo, to achieve defensible borders, to take tough steps to do it - but he then deepened and broadened the consensus.