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Minutes after the exit-poll results were aired Tuesday night, Ambassador Danny Ayalon's cell phone began to ring off the hook with calls from senior State Department and White House officials. This might seem surprising, given the lack of interest the campaign had generated in Washington up until that point. But now that Ehud Olmert and Kadima are facts on the ground, the administration has a tangible focus for its concerns, chief among them how stable a coalition the prime-minister-elect will be able to form.
The Israeli political system is regarded in the US as a little bizarre. Whereas in the American system, once the ballots are counted the game is over, in Israel that is when the game only begins. Furthermore, the coalition-based system is considered a source for instability and trouble.
This is why the questions Ayalon was asked by administration officials on Tuesday had nothing to either with the policies of the new Israeli government or the personalities of its leader - all of which has already been well-researched - and everything to do with the "whats and the whos" of Olmert's coalition, and its chances for stability.
Ayalon assured everyone that though it would take a while before the structure of the coalition is in place, Israel would end up with a stable government.
For the US, a stable government in Israel is vital - especially in times like these - particularly when this may well be the government to delineate Israel's borders for years to come.
One of the secrets of the good relationship prime minister Ariel Sharon had with President George W. Bush and other senior officials in Washington was that Sharon was seen as a strong leader with whom the Americans could do business. There was no fear of his caving in to political pressures or of his losing power to political shifts.
Olmert, as he is perceived now, will not provide the administration with similar peace of mind. To form a coalition, he is liable to have to rely on religious parties - which might bolt the coalition in the event of a significant withdrawal from the West Bank.
This is not good news for the Americans. Playing the role of Middle East broker, the US has been disappointed many times when shaky Israeli governments - such as the one Ehud Barak headed during Camp David - collapsed and left it in the middle of a process, without a partner.
This is probably the only real worry the US has with regard to Olmert, who is otherwise personally like in Washington and viewed as a qualified politician who can be trusted. Though he never held any formal foreign-policy post, Olmert became known by the Americans during the past four years - when he served as an emissary for Sharon, being sent to Washington when there was a need to discuss new ideas and plans which were only in their early stages.
Olmert was identified by the administration as one of the leading powers behind the Gaza disengagement plan, and he is still considered a moderate politician committed to the notion of setting Israel's borders and to bringing about a Palestinian state in the territories from which Israel withdraws.
This is not to say the US completely accepts his "convergence" plan. At least not yet.
When asked about the plan to unilaterally disengage from the West Bank along the lines of the separation fence, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday, "Our views on the issues of borders and settlements and related issues are clear. They're unchanged."
What this diplo-lingo means in the vernacular is that the US opposes unilateral moves and supports the bilateral approach based on the road map.
But this should be seen, at most, as an opening position. The US was initially opposed to the Gaza withdrawal plan precisely because it preferred a negotiated settlement over a one-sided move, yet in time it learned to accept and even endorse disengagement.
Furthermore, on Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it clear that unilateral moves are not something the US wouldn't be able to live with. During a visit to Berlin, she said that the first disengagement, the one from Gaza, had turned out to be a successful move and was supported by Israel. "I wouldn't on the face of it just say absolutely we don't think there's any value in what the Israelis are talking about," Rice said. This is the clearest message of support Washington has given to Olmert's convergence plan and could be interpreted as a green light to move forward with it.
IN THE meantime, the US wants to make sure Israel understands the new rules regarding assistance to the Palestinian Authority: to isolate the PA politically and diplomatically, without starving the Palestinian people or causing a humanitarian crisis.
This task will be taken on by deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and David Welch, Rice's assistant for Near East affairs, in their talks in Israel, which began Thursday. What they came to convey was that Israel should not interfere with international support for humanitarian causes in the West Bank and Gaza, but also - perhaps even more important - to leave the Gaza border crossings as open as possible. This is not only a practical matter, but also an issue of maintaining the US's reputation in the region, since Rice herself was the one who brokered the Gaza crossings deal, which was intended to promise a free flow of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip.
Only after a mechanism of assisting the Palestinians is put in place and the PA's economy is stabilized will the US begin to deal with the greater question of whether there is any way to revive the road map and push for bilateral negotiations, or whether that phase is gone forever and it is time to examine Olmert's unilateral ideas.
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