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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will meet for several hours Tuesday with US President George W. Bush, having spent the previous week adjusting his mission to his host's agenda and to criticism from the international community. The summit, which was expected to be Olmert's chance to pitch his "convergence" or "realignment" plan to a skeptical friend, seems to have shifted focus toward the threat from Iran.
Normally, such last-minute trimming of an Israeli prime minister's sails would not be good news, but in this case, it is. The revisions to the agenda are all improvements.
Iran should top the discussion, and Olmert himself has done a good job shifting his own attention in that direction. It was Olmert, after all, who told CNN on Sunday that Iran's nuclear program was "months, not years" away from achieving a critical level of self-sufficiency.
The US, during the pre-summit jockeying, also suggested that Israel take into account the views of Jordan and Egypt, particularly the Hashemite kingdom, regarding his West Bank pullout plan. This too is good advice, and was also quickly absorbed by Olmert, who began to stress that he intended to move forward with the understanding of the US, Europe, Jordan, and Egypt.
After years of facing pressure to withdraw from territory, Israel seems to be in the strange position of being urged not to withdraw too precipitously. Though Jordan and Egypt share the general international objection to Israel attempting to define borders unilaterally, they also seem to be concerned that the intended withdrawal would strengthen Hamas and radical Islamists in the region.
Israeli prime ministers became used to going to Washington to discuss a narrowly circumscribed agenda centered on settlements, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and security arrangements. Today it is impossible to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian situation as if it were separate from the threat from Iran, Iran's support for Palestinian and Hizbullah aggression against Israel, and the general Islamist threat in the region.
What we are seeing here is a different form of convergence: that of the Arab-Israeli conflict with the struggle to defeat the wider jihad against the West. Israel should have been talking about this convergence for some time, rather than waiting until events made it unavoidable, but it is not too late to adjust.
The truth is that Israel, for all our awareness of the scourge of terrorism, remains a bastion of pre-9/11 thinking. It is the US, not Israel, that after 9/11 realized that peace and stability could not be pursued in a region in which dictatorships were carefully preserved in the name of "stability," and the quests for peace and freedom were disconnected. It was George Bush, not Ariel Sharon, who in June 2002 linked Palestinian statehood to democratization among Palestinians, including the removal of Yasser Arafat, rather than solely to Israeli concessions.
Even now, however, Israelis have not learned to speak of the conflict in regional terms and link it to the Islamists' attempt to spark a global jihad. Though our leaders routinely point out that Iran is not just a threat to Israel, they never take the next logical step: saying that the Arab quest to destroy Israel remains the first and most virulent manifestation of the wider Islamist war against the West.
Olmert's speech on Wednesday to the US Congress provides a perfect opportunity, at the dawn of a new Israeli government, to belatedly begin to change the way Israel speaks about its situation to the world.
Olmert should, of course, convey the deep desire of our people for peace. But he should also speak about the fundamental reason there is no peace: the Arab refusal to abandon the dream of destroying Israel.
The prime minister should explain that this desire not only pre-dated our presence in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza - the war's supposed cause - but the founding of the state. He should explain that, like the threat from Iran, the jihad to destroy the Jewish state is not just our problem, but the world's. He should point out that not only was the terrorism against Jews and Israel a harbinger of 9/11 and other attacks since, but the goal of destroying Israel is a subset of the Islamist goal of subjugating the entire West. Finally, he should suggest that neither Israel nor the West can ultimately be successful against this jihad unless both prevail, and that we need to unite against a common global threat.
If an Israeli leader cannot be expected to say this, then who will?