Mr. Olmert goes to Washington

If the prime minister is in a hurry he is unlikely to get what he wants from the White House.

By MARK HELLER
May 21, 2006 23:11
4 minute read.
olmert gets on plane 298.88

olmert on plane 298.88. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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Ehud Olmert's trip to Washington is in keeping with a time-honored tradition. A high-profile White House visit is part of every incoming prime minister's job description, even if he is not really new to the job. But if the government's public relations people are to be believed, this visit will have an important purpose other than ritual - to coordinate with the US administration and Congress on the centerpiece of Olmert's policy agenda, the next disengagement, known as "convergence." Indeed, the focus of the advance work already done for this visit was to coordinate some concrete agreement that could be announced before the prime minister got on the plane for the trip home.

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For Israel, it is vitally important that policy be coordinated with the US as much as possible, on an ongoing basis. And the important of personal contacts between top-level leaders should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, there are some major questions surrounding the advertised aim of this trip. The first has to do with the content of the coordination. What is it that needs to be agreed? If it is American endorsement of Olmert's declared objective - to set Israel's permanent borders - then he won't get it. The US and most other major actors in the international system have already made it clear that they won't give the recognition needed to turn unilaterally defined demarcation lines into legitimate borders. But if the focus of coordination is some other kind of American "quid" in return for the Israeli "quo" of withdrawing, it is almost equally unlikely to be forthcoming unless the formula is redefined. As long as Olmert confines himself to a truly unilateral withdrawal (the politically incorrect way of saying "convergence), then the U.S. and everyone else can hardly object. But if Israel hopes to get some political and/or material compensation for its withdrawal, it will have to satisfy conditions that meet American requirements. These include the actual extent of withdrawal and its character: whether along the Gaza model of extracting both civilians and the army, or the northern West Bank model of pulling out settlers only. Most importantly, Israel will have to satisfy American concerns about the political context in which convergence takes place. The more that convergence filled up the rhetorical space during and since the Israeli election campaign, the clearer it has become that the US and most of the rest of the so-called "international community," (and since the formation of Olmert's coalition, even some of his own partners) still need to be convinced that the time for the default option of unilateral action has come. Instead, there are growing calls for another try at a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement, as if to prove once again (once and for all?) that everyone's preferred alternative to unilateralism has been well and truly exhausted. IT IS entirely understandable if Olmert and his people did not foresee this turn of events when they began planning the trip. After all, much of the news since January has been dominated by Hamas's unexpected victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections and its subsequent refusal to show any signs of the moderation that many thought (or hoped) would follow - and that most still insist is a necessary precondition for Hamas to become a valid interlocutor. But there seems to be a growing conviction that Hamas is just some Hollywood nightmare and that it can be ignored or outflanked if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is empowered by a resumption of negotiations directly with him. Whatever the reason for this mood shift, the idea of negotiating with Abu Mazen has gained a lot of currency in the weeks just before Olmert's departure, and he will have to adjust to this reality by the time he walks into the White House. In principle, that doesn't require a radical volte-face. After all, Ariel Sharon, whom Olmert claims is his inspiration (but whom many suspect was actually persuaded by Olmert) originally described his own disengagement plan as a fallback position, reluctantly adopted after he concluded that the negotiated agreement he really preferred was not feasible under the circumstances of the time. And Olmert himself repeated that rationale in his victory speech following his own election in March. Indeed, both of them actually took this leaf from the play-book of 2003 Labor candidate Amram Mitza (though neither Sharon nor Olmert would ever admit that), who ran on a platform of trying negotiations for a year and only then acting unilaterally if negotiations had led nowhere. So there is no logical contradiction between coordinating with the Americans first about the possibilities of renewed Israeli-Palestinians negotiations and then discussing with them the requirements for convergence if further negotiations are judged to be futile. But moving to stage two would almost certainly necessitate American-Israeli agreement about when and how that judgment is be made. And that issue seems guaranteed to provoke some serious differences of opinion. In short, the working agenda for the prime minister's visit has probably shifted and he will have to talk about his host's major concern first and get around to his own only afterward, if at all. Of course, nobody ever promised him a Rose Garden. The writer is director of research at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.

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