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When Ariel Sharon arrived for his last meeting with US President George W. Bush more than a year ago in Crawford, Texas, he was not asked by his host to outline the exact details of the upcoming Gaza withdrawal. Nor was he quizzed on the specifics of settlements and outposts. Instead, Bush simply asked Sharon to "take me through your thinking process."
A senior administration official recalled this story last week when he tried to describe what he expects will go on in the talks between Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday. All the American president wants from his first meeting with the new Israeli leader is to get to know the guy - to understand his "thinking process."
The buzz-phrase among Washington think tanks scrambling to figure out the outline of the visit is "listening mode."
The president is now in "listening mode" - ready to hear about Olmert's grand convergence/consolidation/withdrawal plan, yet far from being in a position either to endorse or to reject it.
The administration went out of its way this week to lower expectations, to prevent the disappointment some may feel after Bush and Olmert emerge from the East Room with no significant message. Communal leaders and the press were told in no uncertain terms that this was to be merely a first visit, not a major step toward solving the Middle East conflict.
Olmert is expected to tread carefully in the footsteps of his predecessor, who saw the personal relationship with the US president as a major strategic asset, and invested time, patience and political capital in building and maintaining the relationship. This probably turned out to be Sharon's most valuable move, which ensured him the support of the leader of the Free World both when Israel was in the midst of the toughest days of the intifada, and when he moved to pull out of the Gaza Strip.
FOR OLMERT, the road to confidence-building may be shorter - after all, he does not have the controversial background that Sharon had - but he still needs to put in the time and effort to make it work. Dennis Ross, who served as the senior Middle East negotiator for presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, suggested this week that Olmert might be in a position to have even a better relationship with Bush than his predecessor had, thanks to his experience in politics and his ability to be informal, a trait that Sharon did not possess.
Establishing personal rapport will not be the only item on the Bush-Olmert agenda, however. This will be the new Israeli PM's opportunity to present the principles of his convergence plan. This he will do in the Oval Office; at meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and in a speech to a joint session of both chambers of Congress.
And even though the administration is in "listening mode," questions are expected to be raised.
David Makovsky, head of the project on Middle East peace at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has outlined several of the issues the administration would like to hear more about: How much time Olmert is going to give negotiations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas before moving to a unilateral track; whether the future withdrawal will include the IDF or only the settlers; what the status of the Arab neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem will be; who will pay for the withdrawal; and most important, what Olmert expects to receive in return for pulling out of more than 80 percent of the West Bank.
Olmert is not expected to have all the answers, though experts agree that in order for the convergence plan to succeed, the Israeli PM will have to be given much more than Sharon got for Gaza - some international gesture of support and formal recognition, at least from America, of the legality of the new temporary borders he is going to set.
Asked about the border issue in a meeting with Jewish representatives last week, a senior administration official told the story of the meeting in Berlin more than a year ago between Abbas and Rice - then the national security adviser - during the course of which Abbas argued that the Palestinian people couldn't accept temporary borders as a basis for a state.
"Look, we are in Germany," Rice responded. "And even though there was no final agreed-upon border here for 40 years, they still worked to build a state with democratic institutions."
Yet the administration is still far from adopting the withdrawal plan. The Europeans are adamantly opposed to it, and it would counter the efforts to empower Abbas. Olmert will have to prove he has put in his fair share of time trying to negotiate an agreement before Washington endorses any further unilateral moves.
Ross believes that the administration's recognition of the merits of "convergence" might come earlier than anticipated. "There is a perception that this administration is in need of a victory," he said at a recent discussion in Washington, "and this would be seen as a major accomplishment."
In the meantime, Washington is engaged in an uphill battle over the issue of assistance to the PA. After stressing that it would not support the the suggested European mechanism to transfer funds to pay PA-employee salaries, American officials also indicated that they wouldn't try to prevent the Europeans from paying some 12,000 health-care workers employed by the PA, as long as the payments are defined as "stipends" or "allowances," without using the term "salaries."
Congress is planning to greet the prime minister with a vote on the anti-Hamas bill, scheduled for the day of his meeting with Bush. The bill, which now has 297 cosponsors, is sure to pass. After Olmert leaves, the hard work on the Hill will begin, when the Senate gets ready to take up its own version of the bill.
Congressional sources said they expect the bill - which significantly limits the administration's ability to aid the Palestinians and to deal with the PA - to be moderated to balance out the House version, which is tougher than what the White House and the State Department would like to see.
OLMERT'S LAST stop in Washington, before taking off for Israel late Wednesday night, will be a meeting with leaders of the American Jewish community. Sharon was criticized for spending too little time engaging this community - though he made up for it somewhat in his last visit to the US, which was dedicated entirely to it.
Olmert does not wish to fail in this endeavor. What he will find is a Jewish community as strongly supportive of Israel as it ever has been, but not so sure about the convergence plan.
At a meeting of Jewish activists with Democratic lawmakers a week ago, AIPAC president Howard Friedman used the term "controversial" to describe the convergence plan. And at a White House meeting with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Diane Balser from the dovish Brit Tzedek V'Shalom group stressed the need to promote a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians, before moving on the unilateral plan.
Olmert is expected to use the meeting, which will be attended by a wide range of Jewish representatives, to explain his plan and his strategy for the future.
Like the administration and Congress, the Jews, too, want to listen to Olmert. For them, too, this visit is primarily a chance to get to know the person who is set to lead Israel for the next four years.
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