Olmert and Bush / A meeting in handcuffs
In an ideal world, Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush would finish the weighty part of their meeting in five minutes and move on to talking about their families, their children and sports. Bush would promise to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and thus remove the existential threat hanging over Israel, while Olmert would promise to withdraw from the territories, evacuate the settlers and create a Palestinian state, thus giving Bush the "legacy" of a two-state solution.
If it depended on the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister alone, this scenario might be possible. Bush is fiercely opposed to Iran's having a nuclear bomb, while Olmert wants to leave the territories "in order to save Zionism." But these leaders, who will meet in the White House tomorrow, are not free agents. They both face hostile constituencies who give them failing grades in polls as well as political systems that compel them to avoid taking risks.
The Democratic victory in the Congressional elections, which has been interpreted as Bush's punishment for getting stuck in Iraq, has reduced the chances that the U.S. will attack Iran and thus released Israel from the unbearably difficult decision of whether or not to attack Iran's nuclear installations itself. The Bush administration is signaling a revision of its foreign policy: It promised to coordinate its actions with the Democrats and to search for an exit strategy vis-a-vis Iran.
Olmert, for his part, has recently promised territorial compromises and a mass release of Palestinian prisoners. These are empty promises, however, at least until the government in the Palestinian Authority is replaced. For now, Olmert is even postponing compliance with the U.S. request to transfer rifles from Egypt to Abbas' forces in Gaza. Not a single outpost has been evacuated since the elections. How will Olmert gain the power needed for a far-reaching agreement in the West Bank, and who will be his Palestinian partner?
There is a price to pay for the political handcuffs restraining Bush and Olmert: Israel is growing closer to war with Iran and getting sucked deeper into the quicksands of Gaza. The hope that the "international community" would somehow restrain Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is dying. The pronouncements issued in Jerusalem and Tehran are growing more strident as both countries increase their military strength and seek diplomatic refuge in the UN Security Council. In an interview to Newsweek before leaving for the U.S., Olmert hinted at a possible Israeli military operation.
Israel's "low profile" policy in the face of the Iranian threat evaporated over the past several weeks as the world's impotence in dealing with Iran became more obvious. The remarks by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh to the Jerusalem Post exposed Israel's dilemma. Sneh explained that an Iranian nuclear bomb could destroy the Zionist enterprise even if the bomb was never used, since its very existence would lead Jews to emigrate from Israel. Such statements will certainly put additional pressure on the government.
That will be Olmert's primary message to Bush. Will a veiled threat be sufficient to rouse the U.S. into saving Israel and attacking Iran? Will Olmert's promises to withdraw from the territories in exchange persuade the administration?
Various Israeli sources believe the State Department, headed by Condoleezza Rice, will try to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks and initiate measures that will win approval in Europe, the Arab world and the Democratic Congress. The U.S. will continue to support Israeli military operations in the territories while demanding more consideration for the Palestinians; and if a Palestinian unity government is created, it will look for a way to remove the restrictions on the PA.