Analyze This...: Olmert's Diaspora blues

The PM's ties with some US Jewish leaders hits choppy waters.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Few Israeli politicians know how to work a room of Diaspora Jews better than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. His good command of English, sharp sense of humor (sometimes too sharp) and evident ease around people of wealth and influence has served him well during his career in building relationships with Diaspora Jewish leaders, philanthropists and laymen. This was especially so during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, when he continued Teddy Kollek's tradition of soliciting donations from overseas for local projects. With the exception of Binyamin Netanyahu, none of his political peers is so known for maintaining such close relations with prominent Diaspora philanthropists. Indeed, two of the alleged corruption affairs involving Olmert - the Bank Leumi investigation and the earlier inquiry into the purchase of his Jerusalem home - directly stemmed from his close ties with two such individuals, Daniel Abrams and Frank Lowy. But Olmert's long honeymoon with Diaspora Jewry, especially the all-important US Jewish community, has hit a rough patch. Although the general media coverage of the prime minister's visit to America last week may naturally have focused far more on his interaction with the Bush administration and the Arab leaders attending the Annapolis summit, Olmert's strained dealings with the American Jewish leadership deserve some closer parsing. A troubling sign for the prime minister right at the start of his visit must have been the absence of the traditional advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post usually placed by Jewish organizations or individuals in advance of such major events as the Annapolis Conference, offering general expressions of support for the Israeli leadership. Olmert's policies are apparently too controversial to get such public backing from umbrella bodies as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which includes groups directly opposed to the aims of Annapolis. That was also the case when former prime minister Ariel Sharon held his final pre-disengagement summit with President George W. Bush two years ago; but at least Sharon did get such an ad, organized by the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum, expressing such backing from 40 Jewish groups and prominent individuals. For this prime minister though, nothing - a fact that one veteran observer of Olmert's dealings with the Diaspora says must have surely perturbed him. Perhaps that may have accounted in part for what some reporters say was a surprisingly testy response to a question in his first press DC conference about the claim of some Jewish organizations (most prominently the Orthodox Union) that the Israeli government does not have a mandate to decide upon Jerusalem's future without the input of world Jewry. "Does any Jewish organization have the right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not?" Olmert responded sharply. "This question was decided a long time ago. The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel." In a Washington meeting later in the week with selected American Jewish leaders, Olmert offered a slightly softened version of his response, reportedly saying he recognizes the right of Diaspora to freely express its views about such issues as the future of Jerusalem, but not to dictate to Israel over what it can or cannot negotiate. Also flying to Washington that same day was Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Hampton Synagogue and in recent years a close US supporter of Olmert, who last year accepted the prime minister's request to serve as co-chairman of American Friends of Kadima. But Schneier says he was under the impression he was invited to meet the PM in his capacity as chairman of the American Chapter of the World Jewish Congress. According to one source, he was indeed originally supposed to join Olmert's general meeting with the other Jewish leaders, but strong opposition was expressed at his participation by some of them, especially Conference of Presidents' executive vice-chairman Malcolm Hoenlein. Schneier, who asserts that he himself is unaware of this incident, was hastily given his own private meeting with the PM, which he adds that he was glad to get. Officially, the Conference of Presidents should be taking at the very least a neutral position on Olmert's policies; the organization did issue a brief general statement last Monday saying Annapolis "can be a significant step." That same day though, it chose to host an event in New York City featuring, of all people, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski talking about his new "Marshall Plan" for east Jerusalem clearly aimed at derailing any attempt by the Olmert government to put the capital's Arab neighborhoods on the negotiating table. One prominent Jewish figure says that the Conference, under Hoenlein's direction, was sending an inappropriate political message to Olmert by such scheduling. Although surveys of American Jewry consistently produce left-leaning political attitudes, including Israel making territorial concessions as part of a two-state process, the American Jewish leadership - whose commitment and cash make it a serious player in US-Israeli relations - has always skewed more to the right. A lack of support, or even outright opposition by elements of the Diaspora Jewish leadership toward Olmert's government as he enters the post-Annapolis negotiations stage certainly can't derail or even divert the process (if it even gets going). But it can be a serious headache for an Israeli prime minister, as it certainly was for Yitzhak Rabin in the wake of Oslo, and to a lesser extent Sharon during the disengagement period. This is especially so when a Diaspora billionaire like Sheldon Adelson decides to start pumping major money to Natan Sharansky's new group, One Jerusalem, which will lobby against any concessions on the capital presented by the prime minister. Unfortunately for Olmert, although he was once liked and appreciated by many of the right-leaning Jewish leaders and groups who supported him, he never commanded the respect that a Rabin or Sharon did even from their political opponents. Thus, the attacks on the PM from Diaspora Jews opposed to his policies are likely to be rough, especially since many of those on the right - who in the Clinton years also didn't hesitate to attack the White House - are loath to direct equal fire against a Bush presidency they support on almost every other issue, and will thus focus more on Olmert. It is certainly ironic that the former mayor of Jerusalem, who was once criticized for allegedly utilizing the largesse of American-Jewish philanthropist Irving Moscowitz to encourage Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem, now finds himself on the receiving end of efforts funded by Adelson and others to block his policies. On leaving Annapolis, Olmert told Haaretz that "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South Africa-style struggle for equal voting rights [for the Palestinians], the Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come against us." It seems a peculiar time for Olmert to be citing the potential attitudes of American Jewish organizations as a motivating factor in moving forward with the Annapolis process. Rather than speculating about the future, this events of this past week suggest instead that the PM has more immediate relationship issues to deal with regarding his American Jewish friends - both present and past. [email protected]