Bush, PM put on best faces

Gathering was a largely ceremonial occasion.

US President George W. Bush went from his official meetings with the Israeli leadership yesterday to address the "Facing Tomorrow" conference last night, convened by President Shimon Peres to mark Israel's 60th anniversary. This gathering of world-class politicians, scientists, cultural figures and academics was a largely ceremonial occasion. As one of the event's organizers, former US diplomat Dennis Ross, declared during the proceedings: "We don't do policy here," even though the various sessions produced no shortage of policy recommendations, many naturally dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict. The conference is full of good intentions and creative ideas, some practical, others more in the realm of wishful thinking, but none tied to the actual agenda of any specific organization or nation, including this one. However, the real policy of the day was supposedly being made elsewhere, in the private meetings between Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But whether those policy discussions actually had much more substance than the high-level musings at the "Facing Tomorrow" event - or more accurately perhaps, relevance to actual developments now unfolding on the ground - is questionable. Certainly in his joint statement with Bush, the prime minister seemed at pains to stress to the press that "this is not just a ceremonial visit," supplying the expected checklist of topics discussed between them, from the crisis in Lebanon, the Iranian threat, the violence in and around Gaza, and of course the latest developments in the post-Annapolis negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But simply talking about serious subjects doesn't necessarily qualify as substance; if it did, all of Israel's problems, and many of those of the rest of the world as well, would have been solved at the "Facing Tomorrow" event. A few hours before Bush arrived at the capital's Binyanei Ha'uma convention center to address the conference, a session was held there featuring a number of prominent participants in past peacemaking efforts between the Israeli and Palestinians. The title - "Strong on process, weak on results: Lessons learned from peace negotiations" - seemed no less applicable to the "Annapolis process" as it now stands than prior diplomatic efforts steered by the US to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the participants was former US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, who listed the necessary elements needed to truly move that glacial process forward. Among them, "the US needs capable leaders who understand the urgency to make peace, who are able to achieve agreements between the two sides," and to attend to their implementation in the face of opposition, said Kurtzer, now an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. He added: "And on the Israeli side, well, I'll let you [the audience] fill in the dots…" No more hinting than that was needed. Last night, after Olmert made his own fulsome speech in praise of the US president, he was followed on the Binyanei Ha'uma stage by the conference's principal financial sponsor - Sheldon Adelson, who has emerged as a significant figure in the latest corruption investigation against the prime minister. (According to some reports, Olmert allegedly asked the American-Jewish billionaire if he would provide business to a mini-bar company owned by Morris Talansky.) Taking the stage afterwards, Bush began by poking fun at his own lame-duck status, hailing both the many world leaders in attendance, "and the ex-leaders as well, from a soon-to-be member of the ex-leaders club." Bush at least had the luxury of being able to joke about his upcoming departure from high office, from the comfort of knowing for certain his term is due to finish as planned eight months from now - in contrast to Olmert, who would now be reckoned to be extremely lucky to last that long on the job. The clock is seemingly ticking down ever faster on the political lives of both men, and the negotiations they have heavily invested themselves in are already behind the rushed schedule that was optimistically projected to enable Israelis and Palestinians to reach the outline of an accord by the end of this year. Despite optimistic leaks from the Prime Minister's Office prior to Bush's visit about "significant progress" in the talks with the Palestinians, no "Declaration of Principles" toward a final agreement emerged at the last minute to greet the president on his arrival. And as if to punctuate the disconnect between the process set in motion in Annapolis last winter, and developments on the ground here since then, a Hamas rocket came right on cue yesterday to punch through the roof of an Ashkelon shopping center to wound more than a dozen Israelis. If that misfortune was quite enough to spoil the festive mood at Binyanei Ha'uma last night, it was a potent reminder of the growing gap between ceremony and reality as George W. Bush makes his farewell visit to Israel, and Israel prepares itself for a possible farewell to his fervently faithful partner in Jerusalem. Bush moves on to address the Knesset today, as the "Facing Tomorrow" conference continues with another day of weighty, if somewhat weightless, deliberations. Among those taking part is Prof. Yehezkel Dror, who earlier sat in judgment of Olmert as a member of the Winograd Committee, and has gone on to write a monograph for the convention of the subject of political leadership. "Most contemporary high-level politicians (and also historical ones), with all too few exceptions are grossly inadequate for 21st century future-weaving tasks," writes Dror: "Therefore, as there is no substitute for high-level politicians in their critical tasks, unless their qualities can be radically improved, the future looks very bleak indeed." That, at least, is certainly one idea from the "Facing Tomorrow" conference whose current relevance no one can doubt. [email protected]