Analysis: Saving himself, and Olmert?

In the Olmert-Bush relationship, each side understands well the other side's political needs.

olmert bush mixed 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
olmert bush mixed 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is not exactly a secret that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has developed a much closer relationship with US President George W. Bush than he has with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Indeed, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that appears in today's edition, Olmert praised Bush effusively, yet made no mention at all of Rice. Part of the key to the successful relationship Olmert has forged with Bush is that both men are consummate politicians and understand well the political needs of the other. The same cannot be said of Rice, who has never held elected office and for whom political considerations are less important. As a result, Olmert's protestations about the political limits on his maneuverability because of the need to keep Shas and Israel Beiteinu - two parties that might bolt were he to move too far, too quickly with the Palestinians - in the government resonate less with Rice than with the US president. But Bush understands political needs, and when answering the question as to why is he coming to Israel now, after seven full years in office, one cannot dismiss political considerations, both Olmert's and Bush's - or, more precisely, those of Bush's party. Granted, Bush is coming to try to push the diplomatic process forward. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can say "no" to the US - which is why they both appeared, as summoned, at Annapolis in November. But they are also having difficulty saying "yes." Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is having difficulty saying "yes" to the need to crack down on terrorism, even within his own ranks, and to making some compromises on the core issues; Olmert is having difficulty saying "yes" to stopping construction in the settlements and to removing illegal ones. Truth be told, they both may be saying "yes" to their various commitments, but implementing them is another matter. The White House's hope is that the power of Bush's presence in the region will prod them along the process that began at Annapolis. Bush is also coming because this is the one place in the Middle East - a region that has preoccupied his presidency - where he feels he may be able to point to a tangible achievement at the end of his term, a mere 12 months from now. Iraq remains a mess, even though fewer US soldiers are being killed there now. Lebanon is slipping away. Syria has not changed an iota. The recent US National Intelligence Estimate has taken away Bush's options on Iran. So this is one area - if he can get Israel and the PA to agree to an understanding creating a Palestinian state, even if implementation will be delayed for years - where he could possibly claim a victory. But that's not all. There is also politics. Bush knows that his visit now, just before the release of the Winograd Committee's final report on the Second Lebanon War, can only help his friend Olmert - and he wants to help. It's axiomatic that Olmert is a great survivor. The fact that of the trio who played starring roles in 2006's war in Lebanon - Olmert, then-defense minister Amir Peretz, and then-chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz - he is the only one still standing, is a testament to his survival skills. And Olmert survives, in large part, because he has three protective layers. The first shield is made up of his many friends - in politics, industry and the media - whom he has accumulated and cultivated during some 35 years of politics. The second is the anti-Netanyahu coalition of the Left and Center political parties, who might not like Olmert or his policies much, but hate Netanyahu even more. And the third shield is the diplomatic process - which keeps certain players, such as Labor, from bolting the coalition. Olmert is sure to gain a bounce from the US president, who will praise him for his courage and leadership - a bounce that may take some of the edge off the Winograd Report, which may question both of these characteristics. And finally, Bush is also looking at his own domestic situation and the prospects of his party. Bush won 25 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2004 presidential elections - a not-insignificant slice of that constituency, considering its deep roots in the Democratic Party. But with Jews among those who are reportedly increasingly abandoning the Republican Party in the wake of the Iraq war, a visit to Israel might win back some of their good graces. The visit will certainly play well among the party's Evangelical supporters. And the Republican presidential candidate, whoever he may turn out to be, will need both the Evangelicals and a good part of that 25% of the Jewish vote to keep the Democrats from recapturing the White House later this year.