Washington Watch: The Olmert investigation is Bush's salvation

Israeli prosecutors give Bush a lifeline to avoid blame for failing to achieve his peace plan goal.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
George W. Bush has been full of praise for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, calling him "an honest guy" but not indispensable to the peace process. But deep down the president may not be too disappointed if his friend is forced to step down in the face of the latest police investigation. Despite declarations of optimism from Bush and Olmert, both know they won't get a peace agreement with the Palestinians by year's end, and even if they get a draft outline, one of Olmert's coalition partners has threatened to topple his government. As a latecomer to peace processing, Bush launched the Annapolis agenda in search of a legacy for his administration after years of talking about establishing a Palestinian state but doing nothing about it. But it was too little too late. His national security advisor made a point of announcing that Bush's trip to Israel just didn't "feel right as the best way to advance the negotiations." He settled for another pep talk and photo op instead. With Olmert's latest troubles, Bush may have found his escape from blame. He'll continue to talk the talk but don't look for any serious walking. An utter lack of accountability has been a hallmark of Bush's presidency. If there were a sign on his desk it would read, "the buck passes here." Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can't bridge the gaps between where they are and where they want to go without American help, and that will take more than presidential photo ops. But so far Bush has been unwilling to invest the crucial personal attention and political capital. Olmert's political career has been dogged by scandal, the latest a criminal investigation of possible bribes from a Long Island businessman while Olmert held other offices. Olmert proclaimed his innocence but said he'd resign if indicted. Meanwhile, he wants to keep his job, he declared, because there is nothing he desires more than to "achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians," a goal he feels "certain" is within reach. The possibility of peace provoked threats from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to pull its 12 seats and bring down the government if Olmert even reaches a draft agreement with the Palestinians; it already has threatened to bolt if he dares discuss Jerusalem with Abbas. But it could be persuaded to stay if the price is right: a face-saving gesture and a generous dip into the national treasury. IF OLMERT goes, his likely successors include two failed former prime ministers and a little-known foreign minister with limited experience. Two are committed to continuing the negotiations with Abbas and the third has vowed to shut them down. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is next in line behind Olmert to lead the Kadima party but will have a tough fight to be number one even though a poll published in Israel this week shows that if she does lead Kadima in new elections, she would defeat Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak, now Olmert's defense minister. She is likely to encounter strong opposition from the religious establishment because of her gender and for her support for issues like shul-state separation, territorial compromise and peace with the Palestinians. One of her friends told me he feels she'd be a good prime minister some day but is not yet seasoned enough in policy and politics to keep a coalition together. The pair with experience - Netanyahu and Barak - were dumped by voters by record margins. Netanyahu, first as opposition leader and later as premier, had stormy relations with the Clinton administration and worked with Congressional Republicans and religious conservatives to thwart the president's Mideast peace policies. Again the leader of the Likud opposition, he now wants to scuttle Bush's Annapolis initiative. Barak was not as confrontational as his predecessor. Where Netanyahu was unwilling, Barak tended to overreach. He pressed Clinton to host the 2000 Camp David summit when neither Israel and especially not the Palestinians were prepared for it, and he got Clinton to host a summit with the Syrians that failed because both sides got cold feet at the last minute. Short of Olmert actually being indicted, and maybe not even then, Labor is likely to stay in the coalition to keep it afloat, since polls show it coming in third behind Kadima and Likud. To Olmert's left there is fear that his legal problems will make it impossible for him to negotiate any agreement with the Palestinians, and to his right the opposition fears he will be tempted to give away the store out of desperation to rescue his sinking career. And in between is President Bush, who was in Israel this week to help celebrate its 60th anniversary. While his administration continues to talk about peace, Israeli prosecutors may have handed Bush the lifeline he craved to avoid being blamed for failing to achieve his goal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before he leaves office - a goal he pursued mainly through rhetoric, not action.