PM heads to D.C. to wrangle last favors from Bush
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will visit President George Bush in Washington later this month in an attempt to reach last minute agreements and extract a number of promises before both leaders step down. Olmert is looking for commitments from Bush on the peace process with the Palestinians, U.S. military aid and various arms deals.
There are four main issues on the agenda today in U.S.-Israeli relations: the peace process with the Palestinians and Syria; dealing with Iran and its allies; the future of U.S. military aid and cooperation; and the cancellation of the visa requirement for Israelis who want to visit the U.S., which may keep the senior leadership less busy, but is more important to most citizens.
While Olmert is still looking for promises from Bush, the real questions being asked in Jerusalem relate to president-elect Barack Obama. Will the new American president cut military aid to Israel or will he keep his predecessor's agreements with Israel? How will he handle Iran's nuclear ambitions, and will he support Israel's security requirements? These questions and others are keeping the senior leadership in Jerusalem busy, and will determine Israel's relations with the U.S. in the future.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will arrive in Israel today in advance of the Sharm-Al-Sheikh summit next Sunday, where the sides will review this past year's Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. At the end of the month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will pay a farewell visit to Bush in the White House, and the two will prepare for briefing Obama.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will represent Israel at the Sharm summit, wants the meeting to end with a general document reporting the progress in negotiations, but will not go into detail of what was agreed to and what is still in dispute. This is also the view of the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmed Qureia, according to senior officials in Jerusalem. Rice wants to go home with some form of achievement that will prove to the world that all her efforts were not wasted.
For his part, Olmert wants to agree with Bush on the future security arrangements betwen Israel and the Palestinians, based upon a detailed proposal prepared by Maj. Gen. Ido Nehoshtan, commander of the Air Force. The proposal was presented to the Americans a number of months ago.
Olmert had wanted to receive written guarantees from Bush on U.S. support for Israel's security needs as a continuation of Bush's letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, which related to the questions of borders and refugees in the final agreement with the Palestinians. However, at the time Israel received the letter in return for its withdrawal from Gaza. This time, Olmert has nothing to give Bush and Olmert will have to make due with a verbal promise that Bush will pass on his support for Israel on the matter to his successor. This will not commit Obama, but American presidents tend not to ignore their predecessors' promises.
Olmert also wants Bush to approve a number of important weapons deals which are waiting for administration approval. He will also ask Bush for support for the existing military aid agreement, which promises Israel NIS 30 billion over the next decade. Olmert will explain to Bush that the defense budget and IDF plans are based on this aid, and it is critical not to change the terms of the agreement.
Obama promised in his speech to Aipac in April that aid to Israel will continue, and his senior foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, repeated this promise recently in a closed meeting with Aipac activists. But the worsening of the economic crisis and talk of a reexamination of U.S. foreign aid, have caused Jerusalem to worry about cuts in U.S. military aid. (U.S. civilian aid to Israel ended this year.)
Senior officials in Jerusalem say Bush will avoid attacking Iranian nuclear facilities in the few weeks he has left in office. It is still not clear if he will announce the opening of a U.S. interests office in Tehran, a step that means he has given up on the military option. After all, no one is interested in turning the diplomats into hostages, or even worse.
Obama is committed to a dialogue with Iran and Israel will try to make sure that its interests are taken into account in such talks. Senior Israeli officials say if the U.S.-Iranian dialogue fails, Obama may attack Iran. One official said: "Iran's statements during the campaign were positive, but we will have to see."
The Iranian question is likely to cause disputes between Jerusalem and Washington if Israel feels Obama is being too soft on Iran while Iran continues to arm itself with nuclear weapons under the cover of a diplomatic dialogue. Further, tensions between Jerusalem and Washington will increase if the U.S. is enticed to accept a deal to close Dimona in return for shutting Iran's Netanz weapons site or halting Iranian nuclear development as part of an overall regional agreement for disarmament, which will naturally focus on Israel.