olmert in congress 298 A.
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could barely contain his joy after his meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House. While still standing at the podium in the East Room he made a point of repeating - just in case anyone missed it - the president's praise for his ideas ("as he called them, bold ideas"). And later on, when briefing the Israeli press, he said again and again: "You heard what the president said."
The prevailing notion among Olmert's team, as well as in the Israeli and international press, was that the prime minister got all he expected - and even more - out of his trip to Washington. The conditioned endorsement Bush gave his "realignment" (formerly called "convergence") plan is enough to work with, both in the domestic Israeli political arena and in that of relations with the Arab countries and Europe. Also, the warm embrace he received from Congress will serve him well in positioning himself as a genuine leader, not only as Sharon's replacement.
Olmert put a lot of effort into making the visit work. His advisers spent much more time than they had anticipated ironing out the details of Olmert's and Bush's joint statement and making sure the president found a way to say something positive about the unilateral withdrawal plan without closing the door on the prospect of a negotiated settlement. The last-minute agreement on the language of the statement was as close to that goal as possible.
Olmert himself, too, came ready to the meeting. Aware of Bush's deep religious faith, he dedicated part of the conversation to that issue.
"You are more of a believer than I am," Olmert said, before offering his own version of divinity. "There is some kind of external intervention that led us both to meet here today."
He explained that if Sharon had fallen ill three weeks earlier than he did, Binyamin Netanyahu "would be sitting here with you today."
Olmert's apparent conclusion was that since divine forces put him in that room and not Netanyahu, it was a sign that he and Bush were chosen to lead the move to end one of the Middle East's worst conflicts.
BUSH ALSO came prepared. Prior to the meeting, he made public statements in which he referred to his first encounter with Olmert, which took place when Bush was governor of Texas and visited Israel in 1998.
Then, in their private conversation, Bush whipped out another historic nugget. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, he said, told him several years ago that Olmert would make peace with the Arabs.
The gifts the leaders exchanged also reflected the pre-meeting research. Bush was given a bible by Olmert. Olmert - who, in his televised election campaign broadcasts, had appeared jogging in the hills of Jerusalem - received a pair of running shoes and a track suit with the words "Prime Minister of Israel" embroidered on it from Bush.
THE PRESIDENT'S willingness to cautiously embrace Olmert's plan was well-calculated. Though what the prime minister and the Israeli public will remember from the visit is the phrase "bold ideas," there is nothing in Bush's statement that commits the president to any active support of the unilateral move before he thinks the time is right.
Olmert still believes in the six-to-nine-month time-frame after which he will feel free to move unilaterally, but Bush never endorsed any deadline. There is the possibility that when Olmert reaches the conclusion that all other avenues with the Palestinians have been exhausted, the US will insist that there is still grounds for negotiation.
These kinds of disputes, on subtle interpretations of the complex reality, can go on forever without any of the sides having a chance of winning. The administration still remembers the endless discussions with Sharon after the roadmap was introduced on whether or not the Palestinians had already lived up to the "week of calm" Israel was insisting upon. No real answer to this question was ever achieved.
Bush did not give up much in his warm meeting with Olmert. He used his words to empower the prime minister - whom the administration fears is not as strong politically as his predecessor. In return, he got an Israeli commitment to try negotiations before moving unilaterally and a change in attitude toward Mahmoud Abbas.
For his part, Olmert proved he's a quick learner. While on Sunday he was still referring to Abbas as "helpless" and unable to control the territories, by Tuesday - after hearing the administration's view of the PA chairman as a valuable player - Olmert began calling him "President Abbas" and praising his qualities.
From the US's standpoint, the ball is now in Olmert's court. He needs to live up to the commitments he made in Washington. The first of these is to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah to ease their suspicions regarding his future plans, and to make sure that even if he does move unilaterally, Jordan and Egypt will be consulted. The second is to make good on his promise not only to meet with Abbas, but also to seek a worthy partner for peace on the Palestinian side. The third is to remain forthcoming in his attitude to the flow of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.
Olmert is also expected to keep providing the US with answers to questions surrounding "realignment"(if the issue of what the plan is called is ever resolved, that is). Israeli sources say that, just like Sharon was when he took office, Olmert is determined to keep the US in the know on all his policy decisions, and not to move without full coordination with Washington.
If Olmert lives up to American expectations, the US could be an important, and probably indispensable, partner in making the realignment happen. Olmert needs Bush to market the plan to the international community, to shield Israel from European and Arab criticism which is bound to come, and to assure the Israeli public that the leader of the Free World is behind him.
BUT THAT is still way down the road. At present, as was indicated in briefings given by administration spokesmen after the visit ended, the administration is still focusing on the familiar slogans about the need for a negotiated agreement.
State Department and National Security Council officials will be leaving for the region within a few weeks to follow up on the Washington discussions, and to begin the lengthy process of breaking down the concept of unilateral withdrawal into a tangible, workable plan that deserving of a full endorsement.
It took Sharon seven months before he got Bush on board for disengagement from Gaza. And, as one senior official put it, "this plan is much more complex": the area slated for evacuation is much larger; the stakes are higher; the regional implications are different; and Olmert is not Sharon.
Still, the first step was taken. Which is enough to enable Olmert to take his "bold idea" another step forward.