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(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to have taken Washington by storm. President George W. Bush praised his "bold ideas" and the Congress showered him with multiple standing ovations.
Olmert's speech to Congress, which deftly pressed perhaps every emotional button that could be used to inspire this already supportive audience, was a masterful performance. It demonstrated that command of rhetoric and taking the task of persuasion seriously and professionally is important, even when addressing the best of friends.
Indeed, the entire visit is an important reminder of the incredible warmth of the people of the United States for Israel. While our detractors would explain away this warmth as pure politics, they are wrong.
A national poll commissioned by The Israel Project among the American "opinion elite" found that 80 percent agreed that the US should not fund the Palestinian Authority until the Hamas-led government renounces violence, recognizes Israel and ends terrorism; 94% agreed Palestinian leaders must disarm terrorists; 93% agreed Palestinian leaders must end the culture of hate that encourages children to become suicide bombers; and 78% had a favorable view of Olmert's "realignment" plan.
This support should not be taken for granted. On American campuses today, for example, pro-Israel groups are waging an uphill battle to educate students about the Jewish state in an intellectual climate that is often hostile, to say the least. Ignorance itself can be the greatest obstacle.
As we reported yesterday, Donna Rosenthal, the author of The Israelis, came across a student at an Ivy League university who was surprised to learn that it was not Israelis who were carrying out suicide bombings. Speaking before a class of rabbinical students, she found that none of them knew that there are Muslims and Christians serving in the IDF. There is a lot of work to do, and our government should be doing a better job of making our case in the world.
This is all the more true both because the door, in many cases, is open to our case, and because the war for our existence will be won as much in the court of world opinion as it will by our elite units hunting out terrorists.
In particular, and despite the warmth of his American welcome, the prime minister has yet to demonstrate that Israel will receive any, let alone substantial, diplomatic benefits in exchange for the wrenching and divisive process of dismantling settlements that he proposes.
When asked whether he supported Olmert's plan to annex settlement blocs, Bush gave no concrete endorsement, except to refer back to the ambiguous April, 2004 letter he sent to Ariel Sharon. Also, in almost the same breath in which he praised Olmert's idea as "bold," and said that it "could be an important step toward peace," Bush also said that "no party should prejudice the outcome of negotiations on a final status agreement." This is a major caveat, since it is the usual international rationale for opposing Israeli settlements.
So will the US, let alone Europe, support the expansion of Israeli towns that would remain inside the fence, or not? We still do not know.
In addition to jumping through the hurdle of demonstrating that the negotiating track is a dead end, Olmert faces the intertwined challenges of convincing the Israeli public and the international community that "realignment" makes sense. The challenges are intimately connected, because much of the public is unlikely to wholeheartedly endorse an attempt to move tens of thousands of Israelis from one side of the fence to the other in Judea and Samaria if the international community remains equally opposed to "settlements" on either side of the fence.
Olmert's week in Washington was a good sign that he understands the importance of persuasion and that he possesses significant skills with which to achieve that goal. Those skills, however, have yet to be put to their full test.
Our national challenge is no less than to persuade the world that the principal obstacle to peace is not settlements or Israeli obstinacy, but the refusal of the Arab world to fully abandon its quest to destroy Israel. Olmert has yet to demonstrate that dismantling more settlements will advance this goal, or other aspects of our dreams for peace and security to which he elegantly gave voice.