Ehud Olmert's response to George Bush's speech on Monday demonstrates his manner of thinking and how he perceives his own role: His people rushed to explain that the American president's statements were fully coordinated with the prime minister, that he was very satisfied with them, that they reflected a strong loathing for Hamas and that they placed the burden of proof on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. There was a follow-up to the verbal reaction: Olmert announced that Vice Premier Haim Ramon would head a ministerial committee charged with discussing the implementation of the report on the West Bank outposts issued over two years ago by attorney Talia Sasson.
Olmert's response is mainly spin: He wants to be viewed as having developed an exceptionally close relationship with Bush and as being completely undisturbed by the American president's expectations of Israel.
The demands of Olmert's government set forth by Bush in his speech - the dismantling of unauthorized outposts, an end to West Bank settlement expansion and a reduced presence in the territories - are being presented by officials in Jerusalem as negligible in comparison with Bush's demands of the Palestinians.
In any event, Olmert is acting the part of someone who is genuinely prepared to do his part in realizing the vision outlined by Bush: He replaced the justice minister with his vice premier as head of the committee that is ostensibly dealing with the removal of the illegal outposts. For anyone needing a reminder, a month after becoming acting prime minister, only one outpost (Amona) was evacuated, and only partially; since his election, the government has been deterred from evacuating even the disputed building in Hebron.
The time has come for Olmert to ask himself how he wants to go down in history. Each of his 11 predecessors stamped his or her mark in office: David Ben-Gurion earned the title of principal founding father and shaper of the state. Moshe Sharett will be remembered as representing the conciliatory line vis-a-vis the Arabs. Levi Eshkol is remembered as the great reconciler between the Labor and the Revisionist movements, and for not standing in Dayan's way in the Six-Day War. Golda Meir is considered to hold supreme responsibility for the Yom Kippur War. Menachem Begin is the person who brought peace with Egypt and set the precedent of withdrawing from territories occupied in the Six-Day War. Yitzhak Rabin (in his second term) and Shimon Peres created the Oslo Accords, and Benjamin Netanyahu neutered them. Ehud Barak is etched into the national consciousness as the person who pulled the Israel Defense Forces out of Lebanon and offered Yasser Arafat a peace agreement based on a near-total withdrawal from the territories, including East Jerusalem. The overriding feature of Ariel Sharon's tenure was the implementation of the Gaza Strip disengagement plan.
And what will Olmert leave behind? So far, his name is connected only with the defeat in the Second Lebanon War.
He did make some new noises when he placed his convergence plan on the public agenda, and he did appear to be genuine in his recognition that to maintain the state's Zionist character it must get rid of the lion's share of the territories - but his performance last summer foiled his good intentions. Now he is busy jockeying for survival and bogged down in schemes to save himself from the judgment of the Winograd Committee. Hovering above is the question of why he is so determined to stay in office. Is it just to lick the wounds of his injured pride?
Olmert's ability to change the verdict of history regarding his term in office depends, first and foremost, on his courage.
He talks as if he has come to the realization that the key to saving Israel from its existential problems is a willingness to withdraw from the West Bank. He must translate that awareness into action. Even if he does not have much time left in his term, he should take advantage of it to bring about a sea change in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.
The outline sketched by President Bush on Monday is a serviceable vessel in which to pour an Israeli push to end the conflict with the Palestinians. This is a national goal of the first order, and there can be no more appropriate personal enterprise for which to be recorded in the chronicles of the state.
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