Analysis: Bush, Olmert reading from different scripts

Neither man, because of their unfavorable domestic political situation, will be able to say what the other wants to hear.

bush speaks 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush speaks 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sits down Monday morning for his second t te- -t te with US President George W. Bush, neither man - because of their unfavorable domestic political situation - will be able to say what the other wants to hear. Bush, increasingly surrounded by a staff that sees closer ties with moderate Arab regimes as one way to start extricating US troops from the Iraqi quagmire, would like to hear bold ideas on how Israel plans to move forward on the Palestinian track. In what may emerge as a new theme in Washington, there are those gaining influence in the US capital who argue that one way to get the moderate Arab states on the US side is for Washington to do more to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One time-honored way to try to do this is to get Israel to make more concessions, perhaps more concessions now to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to strengthen him vis- -vis Hamas and the extremists. But despite a pre-visit interview with The Washington Post-Newsweek before his departure Saturday night, Olmert does not seem to have any bold, daring plan to break the impasse. "You can read my lips," he said in the interview. "I'm ready for territorial compromises, and I haven't changed my mind." Maybe not, but he is faced with a few hurdles. First of all, he has no one on the other side who is willing to accept these compromises. PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas reiterated in an interview published Sunday in the London-based newspaper Ashraq Al Awsat that "we will not recognize Israel." Secondly, Olmert is faced with an Israeli public that - according to recent polls - has soured on far-reaching territorial concessions. "Look what happened in Gaza and Lebanon," a growing number of people are saying. Withdrawals there did not exactly buy Israel security and quiet. And, finally, Olmert has recently taken Israel Beiteinu and Avigdor Lieberman into his cabinet to ensure the coalition survives the end-of-year budget votes. This party surely will not sign on the dotted line to the territorial compromises Olmert was talking about. But, some may argue, Olmert did say in the interview that realignment was not dead, and that he would be willing to make far-reaching concessions. Nevertheless, two things need to be kept in mind. The first is that he said this to American media outlets on the eve of a trip to America, knowing full well what the Americans want to hear. And, secondly, his advisers made clear that the type of concessions he was talking about could only take place after a complete end to terrorism - including rocket attacks and suicide bombings. The chances of that happening anytime soon seem slim indeed. As a result of all of the above, Bush is unlikely to come away from the scheduled 80-minute meeting overly excited about what he hears. Ditto for Olmert, who in recent weeks has stepped up rhetoric regarding Iran. He would obviously like to hear a firm commitment from Bush that the US will under no circumstance allow Teheran to go nuclear, even if that means taking military action. And although Bush might like to make this commitment, his ability to do so following last week's US elections has decreased. The elections that swept the Republicans out of control of both the House and the Senate can be interpreted in many ways, but one thing is certain: They reflect a desire to lessen American military commitments abroad, not add to them. There is currently little stomach in the US - with things in Iraq going as badly as they are - for talk about a preemptive American strike on Iran, and all that would entail for the US. Nor does there seem to be much of a stomach for an Israeli preemptive strike, because of the tens of thousands of US troops who could be exposed to Iranian retaliatory measures. Bear in mind, as well, that Bush has just nominated Robert Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Gates is known for advocating a new US approach to Iran and Syria that would entail talking to both countries. In the springtime of this year - before the war in Lebanon, before the awful October that the US suffered in Iraq, before the Republican Party's losses in Congress - there was a discussion held at the highest levels in Jerusalem regarding the likelihood that Bush would take military action against Iran. Even then, when Bush's domestic political situation was not as dire as it is now and Rumsfeld was securely ensconced at the Pentagon, the conclusion was that the chances were no better than 50-50 that the US would take military action to knock out Iran's nuclear capabilities. It is obvious now, months later, that the odds - considering world events - have only gotten worse, something that makes Olmert's dilemma and Israel's predicament all the more difficult.