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(photo credit: AP )
It was planned to have been much different, Ehud Olmert's third trip to the US as prime minister.
This trip was originally meant to deal with Palestinian political horizons, Iranian nuclear bombs and Syrian motives. Perfectly timed to take place after the Labor party and the presidential elections, it was also to have been a prize opportunity for Olmert to get a warm embrace from US President George W. Bush to shore up his leadership credentials at home.
This visit was designed to shift the focus in Israel from Olmert's political problems to his role as statesman. It was intended to be an important step along the route toward the embattled premier's overall rehabilitation.
But then Hamas intervened, and the focus of Olmert's talks this week in the US shifted from boosting Olmert to bolstering Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
As much as the US is comfortable with Olmert and the current configuration of the Israeli government, the survivability of Abbas and the success of the "moderate Palestinian camp" is even more important to Bush's overall policy in the Middle East. And this explains why Olmert, though in the spotlight in Washington, was actually only a supporting player.
When Olmert and Bush sat down for lunch Tuesday in the White House, surrounded by Vice President Dick Cheney, US Secretary of State Condoleezza, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a bevy of aides, the chit chat drifted, as it often does at events such as these, to sports.
Both Olmert and Bush are dedicated sports fans, though they like different sports: Olmert is a big soccer fan, while Bush is a football and baseball aficionado. "Watching soccer," Bush told Olmert, "is like watching the grass grow."
The US President can't relate to soccer. But he can relate to American football. And in American football terms, Abbas right now is the quarterback, and Olmert is the offensive guard - the player assigned to protect the quarterback, making sure that he isn't tackled, that he has the ability to try and make something happen on the field.
Taking this metaphor one step further, Bush is the coach on the sidelines, calling in the plays, giving out the assignments. And Israel's assignment, as it was made crystal clear to Olmert in Washington, is to give Abbas as much support and protection as possible.
IT IS critically important for the US right now that Abbas not be tackled by the extremists, and this is important not simply within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but within the context of US strategy throughout the Middle East.
Bush, during a statement he made before meeting Olmert, unequivocally linked what is currently going on in Gaza to the greater currents in the region.
"It's interesting that extremists attack democracies around the Middle East, whether it be the Iraq democracy, the Lebanese democracy, or a potential Palestinian democracy," he said, sitting next to Olmert in the Oval Office, a portrait of George Washington just above him, and another of Abraham Lincoln just on the wall to his right.
"And what that should say clearly to people all around the world is that we are involved with an ideological conflict that is a monumental conflict. And those of us that believe in liberty and human rights and human decency need to be bound together in common cause to fight off these extremists and to defeat them."
Never mind that this policy of foisting democracy on the Middle East brought Hamas to power in the first place; and never mind that efforts by Lt.-Gen. General Keith Dayton to turn Fatah forces into an effective fighting force against Hamas failed miserably; and never mind that Abbas has up until now proven himself most ineffective.
Bush has little choice at this point but to support Abbas. The US must demonstrate to others in the Arab world now that in times of need it does not abandon its allies. This is a message that Bush needs to radiate to other pro-western and endangered regimes in the region, like Iraq and Lebanon, as well as to other key US allies facing serious challenges from extremists: Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
In Bush's mind, what is currently unfolding in the Palestinian Authority is just another battle in the overall war between extremists and moderates - what he called the "great challenge of our time."
Since Abbas is the moderate, he must be supported, and Bush's expectation is that Israel will do everything it can to support him as well.
Olmert made clear that Israel would play the role as scripted. He said numerous times in Washington that he would cooperate fully with Abbas, would begin negotiations with him, would release frozen tax revenue, would try to make movement and access in the West Bank easier in order to improve the quality of life there.
Listening to both Bush's and Olmert's remarks this week, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Hamas takeover of Gaza was actually something positive, something that provided unlimited opportunity, and the catalyst for the realization of Bush's vision of a two-state solution.
Olmert, after his meeting with Bush, clarified that it was important to differentiate optimism form seeing an opportunity. "I didn't say I was optimistic," Olmert said. "But there is a situation that could create new opportunities."
The ultimate goal, Olmert said while sitting next to Bush, is "to create the Palestinian state. We have to prepare the groundwork that will allow - soon, I hope - to be able to start serious negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state."
Under the road map, which has served as the basis of diplomatic activity since 2003, negotiations leading to a Palestinian state were scheduled to begin after both the Palestinians and Israel fulfilled certain steps. Among those steps, the Palestinians were to uproot the terrorist infrastructure, and Israel was to stop settlement construction and dismantle illegal outposts. Only then were negotiations to begin over a Palestinian state and final status issues.
The idea of the political horizon that gained currency at the end of 2006 tried to create a bit of a short-cut through this process, with the idea being that Israel and the Palestinians would talk about how an eventual Palestinian state would look, without actually negotiating now about bringing it into existence.
But following the dramatic developments in Gaza, with both the US and Israel in a rush to show Palestinians that they have so much more to gain from supporting the moderates than they do by backing the extremists, one question that needs to be asked is whether the road map is dead.
"No," Olmert said unequivocally on Tuesday in response to a Jerusalem Post question. "It still remains the framework."
Maybe so, but it seems clear that it is only the framework in the West Bank. Regarding Gaza, who knows.
One key element that was missing this week from Olmert's and Bush's statements, and from the off-record briefing that came out of New York and Washington, was a good indication of an overall strategy toward Gaza.
Olmert sees the current situation as an opportunity to build a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Fine. But what about Gaza? How will Israel and the US now deal with Hamastan?
Neither Bush nor Olmert related to their grand strategy for dealing with a terrorist organization that has gained complete control of a significant slice of real estate. Instead, the two leaders repeated their pledge of allegiance to a two-state solution, an idea that seems somehow quaintly outdated now that a three-state solution has appeared violently on the scene.