Analyze This: This time around, a Bush visit might come too late

The current scandal will impact negatively on the peace talks.

Olmert worried 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Olmert worried 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
In his recent book The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, the veteran US Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller writes of the frustrating period leading up to the Israeli election of 1996: "The six months from Rabin's murder to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu was a frenetic period of diplomatic activity as we tried to make progress between Israel and Syria, defuse crises, and frankly do all we could to ensure that Shimon Peres, heir to Rabin's legacy, won the election. "The idea that America doesn't sometimes interfere in Israeli politics is about as absurd as the idea that Israel doesn't meddle in ours. Much of what we did during that period was designed to support Peres, and in doing so save Arab-Israeli diplomacy... But Peres ran a mediocre campaign. Netanyahu, the master politician, ran a better one and eked out a slight victory... On election night all I could think about was how we were going to save the Oslo process from extinction. But I didn't get it. Oslo, as Israelis and Palestinians had known it, was already dead." It's hard, reading Miller's chronicle of his involvement over two decades in trying to broker peace between Israelis and Arabs, not to sympathy with his frustration. How annoying it must be for the representatives of the globe's greatest power to find their carefully and patiently drawn diplomatic plans to bring order to this troubled corner of the world waylaid by the local politics of this small nation. How bitterly ironic that just a week before the US president is scheduled to touch down here - even as reports bubble up of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and renewed hope on the Syrian track - that the American on everybody's mind and lips in Jerusalem, the one who may hold the key to Prime Minister Olmert's fate, is not George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice, but a rabbi/businessman from New York's Long Island named Morris (Moshe) Talansky, aka "the laundry man." Even if the current scandal involving Talansky's alleged payments to the prime minister doesn't bring down the government or force an early election, there's no question it has already impacted negatively on the US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks, and will affect any other diplomatic initiative in the near future, as long as Olmert remains in office. Already, statements issued by the Prime Minister's Office earlier this week about significant progress of late on the Palestinian track are being widely interpreted as not much more than spin aimed at generating headlines and distracting the public from the growing scandal. And even if there is any substance to these reports of progress, the opposition is now in a stronger position to attack the Olmert government's diplomatic efforts as primarily a "wag the dog" tactic designed to turn attention away from the PM's legal travails. We have seen a similar state of affairs before, when then-prime minister Ariel Sharon pushed forward his controversial Gaza disengagement while finding himself under criminal investigation. But Sharon had substantial political capital that Olmert completely lacks, and was fortunate in having the case against him closed prior to the withdrawal. Even before the latest scandal broke, Olmert's position was increasingly precarious, as the unpopular head of a shrinking coalition in the second half of its shelf life. This new affair, even if it fails to produce any immediate legal or political repercussions, reduces the prime minister's maneuvering room to make any significant diplomatic concessions close to the zero point. There can little doubt that President Bush's decision to join in Israel's 60th anniversary celebration here next week, just five months after making his very first trip here, was designed in part to boost Olmert's depressed public standing as he oversees a post-Annapolis process that Washington has invested much effort and prestige in getting under way. The prospect of a criminal indictment hanging over the prime minister's head as that presidential visit takes place - and with it the possible collapse of a government that has been so eager to follow the Bush administration's lead in restarting serious talks with the Palestinians - must be causing serious teeth-gnashing right now in the corridors of the White House and the State Department. If it's any consolation to Miller's successors - and it probably isn't - Olmert's new troubles are a reminder that unlike its neighbors, Israel is a democracy whose rulers are no less immune to the tides of domestic political opinion, or protected from proper legal procedures, than they are in the US. Indeed, President Bush's own new-found desire to engage himself directly in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and score some historic achievement here is no doubt also motivated to some degree by his own depressed domestic political fortunes. So it was with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who also turned his focus to Jerusalem in his final year in office in an effort to recover some of the standing he squandered by his own misbehavior in the Oval Office. This is not, though, to compare their troubles with Olmert's, especially the prospect of an indictment on corruption charges. There is, though, a more fitting example of an earlier American president who also visited Israel during a real period of "frenetic diplomatic activity," who hoped that traveling here and immersing himself in our troubles might help the US public back home focus less on his own. That president was Richard Nixon, who touched down in Jerusalem on June 16, 1974; less than two months later, the Watergate scandal forced him from office. Even though George W. Bush is scheduled to finish his term of office before Olmert, this time around it is the prime minister who increasingly looks like he will not long survive this presidential visit. [email protected]