ANALYSIS: Olmert gets by with a little help from Bush
One can surmise the U.S. president's warm words for Olmert are directed at Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak.
U.S. President George Bush is considered the most pro-Israeli president of all time, and his support for the Jewish state has often drawn criticism from within the U.S. and abroad. But until now, he has remained a distant friend: In his seven years' tenure he never tried to address the Israeli public and win their admiration. Unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton who came to Israel four times during his presidency, Bush was here just once, when he was governor of Texas two years before he was elected president. In addition, press conferences with visiting Israeli prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon, were kept short, and he does not count any Israelis among his inner circle of friends.
Ahead of his visit, Bush gave two interviews to the Israeli press, to Yedioth Ahronoth's Nahum Barnea and Shimon Schiffer and Yonit Levy of Channel Two. Choosing the most popular television station and most widely-read newspaper shows the U.S. administration wants to reach the largest target audience.
In the interviews, Bush's main message addressed Israeli politics. "I trust him," he said of Olmert. "He's a man of vision and I believe and like him, and I think he's a strong man."
Few Israelis will say such things of Olmert. Bush himself claims to be briefed on the goings-on of Israeli politics. Therefore, one can surmise his words were directed at Labor Chairman Ehud Barak who is mulling whether to remain in the coalition after the Winograd Committee delivers its final findings. After all, if the leader of the free world calls Olmert his friend and is so impressed by Olmert, how can his defense minister abandon his guard and plunge the country into political turmoil?
Bush applied the same strategy of supporting Israel's prime minister in an interview granted before the 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip. During the interview with Channel One, Bush showered praise on then prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Bush also tried in recent interviews to smooth over the U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran has dropped its nuclear armament ambitions. He emphasized that the intelligence estimate did not eliminate the potential threat from Tehran. On the contrary, Israelis cannot let down their guard given the threats made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bush said.
On the issue of policy making, he sounded less determined. In talks with U.S. media outlets, he set new goals of reaching an agreement that would allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. He added that such a goal could be reached by the end of the year. He tried to calm Israelis who are always fearful of U.S. intervention, saying he would not impose a deal and suggested leaders from both sides make an effort during the remainder of his tenure to strike a deal.
To Olmert, Bush's visit is a congenial event in which the president will arrive, express his friendship and leave without putting forth policies uncomfortable to Israel. But the question remains whether the president's support will convince skeptical Israelis that the Annapolis Summit and the peace process can achieve any substantial goals.