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(photo credit: AP [file])
What a difference a war can make. The last time Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush, he brought with him a grand plan to "realign" the border around several settlement blocs in the West Bank and give the rest to the Palestinians, whether they liked it or not.
According to that plan, Israel would secure a Jewish majority for the next generation, the Palestinians would establish a state in the areas between the settlement blocs and the security barrier, and the conflict would go into deep freeze, for the next generation to work out. The road map would have remained the preferred option if the conditions for its implementation happened to present themselves.
It may not have been a great plan, but it was a plan nonetheless.
Google-Earth yourself from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Gaza-Israel crossing at Kerem Shalom and then to the Lebanon-Israel border. Two cross-border attacks and kidnappings, 4,000 rockets, 161 Israelis killed, a hail of Kassam rockets on the western Negev and, most alarmingly, a vast weapons highway from Egypt through which a frightening army is being equipped on the other side of the border in Gaza, a mere dirty-bomb's throw away from the Ashkelon power plant.
Not a week goes by without some security official spreading doom and gloom - and predicting war - at the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Meanwhile, Iran is racing toward a nuclear weapons capability, Hizbullah is threatening to topple Fuad Saniora's government, Syria is threatening to take back the Golan Heights by force, and yes, Iraq is still in flames. Such is the context of Olmert's second visit to Washington.
On Sunday, Olmert has a working meeting with Condoleezza Rice and her top aide, Stephen Hadley, to prepare for his meeting Monday with Bush. The US president is going to ask him a very simple question: Where to from here?
The Americans want to know what Israel plans to do now that the unilateral realignment plan is off the table. In short: What is the policy of the Israeli government?
Bush liked the realignment plan when it was first presented to him, but almost everybody in Washington now realizes that a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank is not possible [for reasons see Hamas's rise to power after disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah's terror base in southern Lebanon after withdrawal in 2000.]
Olmert does not seem to have a plan for the near- to medium-term future. In short, a vacuum has presented itself and all comers are welcome.
A physical vacuum, it seems, is filled quicker than a diplomatic one, but not by much. Officials in Washington and Jerusalem fear a "Shamir syndrome" - referring to former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's "do-nothing" approach to diplomacy.
When Bush asked then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to describe his thinking regarding disengagement, Sharon said that since there were no major diplomatic initiatives being developed by the government or the US administration, others had jumped into the vacuum - such as the Geneva Accord initiators and other plans hatched in Europe. Sharon felt he had to "do something."
His successor, Olmert, has recently said he didn't see a reason why he needed to wake every morning with a diplomatic initiative and that running affairs of state on a day-to-day basis was good enough - what some call the Shamir plan for diplomatic progress.
The US is worried about the vacuum.
Theoretically, Israel and the US agree on a two-state solution, but a Palestinian terror state is in nobody's interest.
The US administration, according to sources familiar with the regular diplomatic contacts between Washington and Jerusalem, wants to know what, if anything, Olmert hopes will happen in the near-to-medium future. Washington wants to know what the chances are for forward movement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And Washington expects an answer.
Both Washington and Jerusalem's hopes are tied to whether Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) can strike a deal with Hamas over a government of technocrats that Israel can live with, and that the Americans and Europeans can work with. Abbas is crucial to the equation. If he fails to form a Palestinian national unity government, the future looks bleaker.
According to US government sources, America wants to see Israel help strengthen Abbas by opening the border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip for the transfer of goods, and releasing Palestinian customs and tax revenues it is holding. The plan aimed at strengthening Abbas, drawn up by Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, the US security coordinator in the West Bank and Gaza, is key.
The increased radicalization of the Palestinians and the growing influence of Hizbullah in the territories is also a major worry. Washington wants to work "toward" a Palestinian state, not "to" a Palestinian state, a senior administration official said this week, expressing hope that such a state would be established during the term of the next US president - 2009 to 2013.
Further north, Hizbullah is continuing to rearm, with help from its friends in Damascus. America wants to strengthen Saniora. The first step in doing that would be to get Israel to stop its flights over Lebanese airspace by agreeing to rely on US and European satellite intelligence.
Israel's position is that the overflights will continue as long as needed, or until a formula can be worked out with the US. Olmert is likely to accede to Bush's request to stop overflights if security officials from the two countries come up with a workable solution.
Bush and Olmert will also discuss Iran, naturally. Senior officials in Washington explain that there are two clocks rapidly ticking down: International Diplomacy Time (IDT) and Iranian Nuclear Bomb Time (INBT).
The assessment in Jerusalem is that Iran will reach the point of no return (i.e., need no outside assistance to produce nuclear weapons) in two to three years (INBT 2-3), while the American assessment is slightly longer than that (INBT 4-5).
The main question keeping Israeli officials who are dealing with the matter awake at night is: Who, at the end of the day, would be able and willing to "live with a nuclear-armed Iran."
For Israel, the answer, from Olmert all the way down, is a resounding no.
A top American official wouldn't answer that question, and Israeli officials wouldn't wager at this point, but some are saying off the record that with the mess America finds itself in, in Iraq (an Israeli diplomatic official said this week that the US midterm election was about Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and Republican corruption) and North Korea, things may come to the point several years from now (either as IDT runs out or on the verge of INBT running out) that Washington will have to tell its Israeli ally something along the lines of, "We're really sorry chaps, really we are, we didn't want a nuclear Iran, either, but we've tried everything from financial sanctions to international pressure, from the threat of force to promises of grand diplomatic and economic incentives and rewards. And nothing, nada.
"So we've decided that we're just going to have to live with an Iranian bomb. But don't worry, we'll tell Teheran that we're covering Israel with a brand new, top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art missile defense shield, and that we'll fry them if they launch nukes at you. How about that? And once again, we're sorry."
If Israel decides to let things get that far, it will then have to decide whether or not it can live with the Iranian bomb. And from what Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday - that the IDF must prepare to thwart Iran's nuclear drive at any cost - things are pointing toward the latter option.
In the meantime, America continues to try diplomacy, and is making some progress on the financial front toward putting the skids on Iran's nuclear program. According to a top administration official who deals with the Middle East, more and more chairmen and executives of multinational corporations and financial institutions are starting to pull their businesses out of Iran.
"We're going to these boardrooms and we're telling the people there that it's not in their financial interests to carry on doing business with Iran as it becomes more and more isolated," the official said.
Bush has other reasons as well for asking Olmert for movement on the Palestinian issue: to secure the help of four moderate Arab regimes (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - but not Qatar at this stage) in Washington's efforts to find an exit strategy in Iraq and to stop Iran's nuclear march.
These states have shown a willingness to help the US, but have preconditioned this help on Israeli concessions to Abbas. The "Arab Quartet," as a top US official called them this week, wants quick and visible progress toward a Palestinian state. The question now is how to get them to work with Israel. Washington would like to see an Arab Quartet plus one - Israel - cooperate against common enemies - Iran, Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria.
The one thing this Arab Quartet has in common is a dread of the rise of Shi'ite extremism. For example, the Saudis are furious at Bashar Assad, an Alawite who leads a mostly Sunni nation, because Syria is in bed with Shi'ite Iran.
Saudi Arabia has been Syria's toughest critic recently, even more so than Israel and the US. Riyadh sees Syria's alliance with Teheran as a betrayal of Sunni solidarity. They have quietly imposed their own sanctions regime on Damascus: limitations on travel to Saudi Arabia, financial penalties, a drastic drop in Saudi investment in Syria and other measures.
Washington is also unhappy with Damascus, to say the least. The Syria Accountability Act, a top administration official says, is a lame duck law and grossly ineffective. Instead of engaging Syria in talks and prying it away from Teheran's embrace, Washington is looking for ways to inflict more pain on Assad's regime, to try to get him to change his policies regarding the flow of money and arms to Hizbullah and Hamas and foreign fighters to Iraq's insurgency.
The Syrians are also not helping the moderate cause in Lebanon, which, Washington is convinced, Damascus wants back under its control. According to assessments in both Washington and Jerusalem, Bashar Assad wants to take back the Golan Heights and to reassert Syria's dominance over Lebanon.
He won't settle for anything less at this stage, so there are no rewards big enough to offer him, only punishments. Bashar thinks he is riding high as a result of this summer's Israel-Hizbullah war, which he perceives as an Israeli defeat. Washington believes that even if Olmert were to check out Assad's offer of talks, he might discover there's nothing to gain in Damascus.â€¢