Analysis: Why now, and for what? Looking for meaning in Olmert's last US trip

Looking for meaning in Olmert's last trip to the United States.

bush olmert 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush olmert 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Some trips Israeli prime ministers take abroad are so obvious that there is absolutely no reason to explain their rationale. Such, for instance, was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit last November to the US for the Annapolis Conference, or his trip to Paris in July to join other world leaders at a Mediterranean summit. So, too, will be the virgin visit in the Spring of the new Israeli prime minster to Washington to sit down with the by-then US president Barack Obama. Such is not the case, however, for Olmert's current visit to Washington. One could be excused for asking the purpose exactly of a scandal-plagued Israeli prime minister on his way out of office traveling to Washington for a tete-a-tete with a vastly unpopular lame duck US president. What, one could fairly ask, does Olmert hope to achieve beyond saying farewell to a good friend of Israel, something that could be done a lot more cheaply by telephone? Realizing these questions would be asked, Olmert's advisers over the last couple of days have volunteered various reasons for the prime minister's current trip. According to one reason, it is to get Washington to recommit to last year's memorandum of understanding to provide Israel with $30 billion in military aid over the next decade. Another reason is that Olmert will try to get President George W. Bush to recommit to his famous letter from 2004 saying that the US realized that Israel would not have to withdraw completely to the 1949 armistice lines. Regarding the money, Olmert's advisers would have to be incredibly obtuse to think that now was the time to come to Washington with hat in hand asking for reassurances that money pledged will indeed be money delivered. Not now, not with the US economy reeling, with millions fearing unemployment, and with hundreds of thousands losing their homes. If Israel wants to get off on the wrong foot with the American public, not only the president-elect, then it should start talking publicly about the $30 billion. If not, it should just wait for another day for these assurances. One of the biggest stories last week in the US was the trip by the heads of the three US auto giants to Washington for testimony before Congress about a $25 billion bailout. Media outlets estimated that if General Motors, the company facing the most immediate danger, would close down, some 3 million Americans would lose their jobs. Three million! Despite that, the government was in no mood to ante up the money, and the delegtion returned to Detroit without any promises. If the US public was in no mood to spend $25 billion to save 3 million American jobs, then imagine how thrilled they would be to hear now about Israeli aid requests. And Israel's argument that over 70 percent of the money would be spent in the US would likely fall on deaf ears, since - unfortunately - when Americans hear the words "foreign aid," or "foreign military aid," they don't pay much attention to the fine print. Just like in 2005, when Israel waived aid requests it made to the US to help pay for disengagement because of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, so too would the government now be wise and do well in not raising the military aid profile, but in fact lowering it. As to the Bush letter, it's ironic that Olmert is in Washington to get a re-commitment to a letter that some doubt he himself is still committed to. These doubts were raised following Olmert's recent statements regarding the need for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. One of the key sentences in Bush's April 2004 letter read as follows: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion." Last week at the official memorial for slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Olmert said, "If we are determined to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, we must inevitably relinquish, with great pain, parts of our homeland, of which we dreamt and for which we yearned and prayed for generations, and we must relinquish Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and return to that territory which comprised the State of Israel until 1967, with the necessary amendments stemming from the realities created on ground." Olmert seemed to be parroting Bush's line about the changed realties on the ground, and - as a result - appears to still believe in the Bush letter. As such, it does indeed make sense for him to get Bush to give some kind of public verbal nod to the letter now to indicate that the terms of that letter are as true today as they were in 2004 when the Bush Administration wanted to give the Israeli public something in return for disengaging from the Gaza Strip. This is especially important since Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, was quoted in April as saying that while Bush obviously still stood by his letter, "you need to look at it, obviously, in the context in which it was issued," which was to gain Israeli public support for disengagement. It makes good sense for Israel now to bring attention to this letter in the twilight of the Bush presidency, and before Obama takes the helm, both as a reminder to the new president of the former president's commitments, and also as a reminder to Congress - which endorsed the letter - of what was already agreed upon in case there are those in the new administration who might want to re-negotiate the terms. The letter itself has no statutory standing. Generally, however, successive presidents take commitments put down in writing by their predecessors as very important. These documents are not, however, binding policy statements. While all the attention in the letter is generally focused on the settlement issue, there is another US commitment in the letter that one could argue was even more important - and prime minister Ariel Sharon indeed used to argue that all the time. That clause reads, "The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel's security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats." In Sharon's mind this was nothing less than a US commitment that Washington would not back international attempts to strip Israel of its alleged nuclear capabilities after Iran's nukes were dealt with. It has also been interpreted in Jerusalem as a flashing green light to Israel to take action against Iran "by itself" if it feels its existence is endangered by Iran. It makes little sense that Olmert went to the US now in the midst of an economic meltdown of humongous proportions to talk about the $30 billion in military aid. It also makes little sense that he went to get Bush to sign off once again on the letter, especially after Olmert may have diluted the content of the letter by his declarations of a willingness to return almost fully to the 1967 lines. But what does make more than just a little sense is to get recognition now - at a time when Iran is marching with determination toward the nuclear threshold - of a US commitment to back Israel's right to defend itself "by itself against any threat or possible combination of threats."