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When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sits down with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for dinner Monday night, he could be forgiven some gentle ribbing of Rice for her lack of confidence in his political abilities. Just over a month ago, Rice - who promised back in March to come to the region every few weeks - postponed a trip to the region.
Her postponement came immediately after the Winograd Committee issued its interim report, and although Rice never said so, she didn't want to "waste" a trip on a leader whose political future was very much in doubt. Rice wanted to wait until the dust from the report settled, and see what type of Israeli government would emerge, and who would be its head.
Well, the dust has settled, and - according to US assessments - Olmert is firmly in place.
The perception in Washington, said one US diplomatic official, is that for the time being, the Olmert government is not falling and the government now has "legs to stand on." Business, the official said, can go on as usual, and the feeling in the US administration is that in a country where governments change on an average of every two years, this one is about as stable as they get.
The Bush Administration is also pleased with the results of last week's presidential and Labor Party elections.
Regarding Shimon Peres's victory, Washington views him as someone who sends the right message to the region - that Israel wants peace and is willing to make sacrifices for it.
But Peres's victory is less important to the Americans than Ehud Barak's. Washington was sorely disappointed at Israel's performance in the Second Lebanon War, and that Defense Minister Amir Peretz never commanded much respect there. Barak's appointment as defense minister will, diplomatic officials say, restore a degree of confidence in Israel's military, because he is seen as "supremely competent."
And, like Peres, Barak is viewed as someone "serious about wanting peace," someone who in 2000 both at Camp David and through his decision to withdraw from Lebanon showed a willingness to "take chances for peace."
From a political point of view, Olmert timed his visit to the US perfectly. To a large extent, the Americans have regained confidence that he is a leader who will be around for a while. What Olmert will now try to do is use the US trip, and President George W. Bush's support, to convince a skeptical Israeli public of the same.
This perception is a dramatic change from the feeling in Washington following the interim Winograd Report, when there was a real sense that the Olmert government was too weak to deal with any of the "big" issues, and any major diplomatic initiative would just have to wait. Now the uncertainty has shifted from Israel's domestic woes to those of the Palestinians.
Likewise, the fact that Olmert was able to shepherd Peres's election through the Knesset helped convince the administration that the prime minister still wields considerable political clout, and can push matters important to him through the Knesset.
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