Diplomacy: Happy Bushday to Olmert

What Bush is likely to have left behind is a process that will once again get bogged down.

olmert bush 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert bush 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The streets of Jerusalem were scrubbed; the sidewalks were clean; and there was almost no traffic. There was a certain ethereal quality to the capital Wednesday, when US President George W. Bush motorcaded into town. For some, like the folks who live near the Prime Minister's residence in Rehavia and couldn't get home, it was a nightmare. For others, like the man who lives in that official Rehavia residence, it was a dream. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could be forgiven for waking up Friday morning, after a festive dinner with the US president and some of his ministers, taking his wife, Aliza, by the hand and singing that old pre-school Shabbat ditty: "Who loves Shabbat? Mom and dad/who loves Shabbat? Grandma and grandpa/Who loves Shabbat? Me and you/Then why isn't everyday Shabbat?" Only in his version, Olmert would replace the word "Shabbat" with a new day: "Bushday." And why shouldn't Olmert love Bushday? It overshadowed the looming Winograd Committee report on the Second Lebanon War; it promised him, according to an Israel Radio poll, a slight popularity bounce; and it brought him public accolades from the world's most powerful man. Who wouldn't want that to last forever? Bushday - or, more appropriately in this case, Bushdays - had a certain Shabbat-like quality, even beyond the empty streets and closure of some of the city's schools. First of all, there were the hectic preparations in advance. Exactly six weeks after the Annapolis Conference, and just before Bush arrived, it was finally decided - at the last minute - that Israel and the Palestinians would formally begin discussions on the core issues: Jerusalem, refugees, borders. And Bushday was characterized by a degree of separation - as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote of Shabbat - between space and the material things that fill it. In other words, there was a disconnect on Bushday between time and space, between the ideal and the real. Bush himself slammed this quality home when, at his press conference with Olmert Wednesday evening, he said that the first thing he would ask Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the next day was what was Abbas going to do about the missile fire from Gaza. As if Abbas really were the strong leader of the Palestinian people upon which the Annapolis process is predicated; as if he really could control anything in Gaza, let alone in Nablus - an area under his control - where the IDF last week discovered an embryonic Kassam factory. Bush's words reflected a certain detachment from reality, a detachment that also came through in his straightforward appeal to Olmert to remove the settlement outposts. As he put it, "The outposts ought to go." As if, on the eve of Winograd, or in its aftermath, Olmert could carry out such a divisive political move and remain in power to push forward the Annapolis process. THE POWER of Shabbat, Heschel once wrote, was that it created a different reality. And this was one of the overriding characteristics of Bush's visit: a visit that seemed predicated on a different reality. Bush was betting that a Jeffersonian vision of democracy and prosperity could trump a Palestinian reality infused by religion and ideology. As they say in the army, every Shabbat has motzaei Shabbat, Saturday night. In other words, every Bushday has the day after, when he leaves. And as Bush headed off Friday before Shabbat, what he is likely to have left behind is a process that, while briefly energized, will once again get bogged down, just as it did before he came. As one senior diplomatic official said recently, there are two realities currently at play: the pleasant reality in the diplomatic stratosphere of Annapolis ceremonies and Paris meetings and handshakes and smiles and pledges of hard work; and the gritty reality on the ground of Hamas control and Kassam rockets (and now Grads and Katyushas) and terror warnings and arms smuggling and settlement construction and roadblocks and IDF actions and threats of major ground incursions into Gaza. And these twains are simply not meeting. Bush came this week hoping to push those "twains" together, and he may have had a certain measure of success. As he put it, he came here to nudge the sides, and his visit proved a "pretty significant nudge," since both sides did indeed agree to begin discussions about the core issues. But all sides are avoiding the central obstacle: Hamas, and its control of Gaza. And at this point that is as much a core issue as the rest. It is not as if Bush is not aware of the difficulty Hamas in Gaza poses to his program. He acknowledged the problem himself during his press conference with Abbas in Ramallah. "Gaza is a tough situation, and I don't know of a way to solve it unless the president [Abbas] has a vision that he can lay out for Gaza," Bush said. "Do you want the state, or do you want the status quo?" he asked. "Do you want a future based on a democratic state, or do you want the same old stuff?" With his admirable American optimism and hopeful view of human nature, Bush assumes that, given the choice, the Palestinians will choose democracy and a state living side-by-side with Israel over Hamas control in Gaza. But that doesn't factor in the importance of religion and ideology. If the "same old stuff" also includes continued denial of Israel's right to exist, while the democracy option means having to accept it, maybe people will prefer the same old stuff. Maybe they will hope that, through the same old means - terror and violence - they will get "better new stuff" without having to accept Israel, something which runs completely contrary to their religious and ideological vision of the world. Bush is gambling that it is a no-brainer that, faced with the choice of a better future and the acceptance of Israel, or the same situation but no ideological dilution, people will choose the former. The question is whether, at this moment, in this region, that is a good bet.