When Ehud meets George
It would require a little hubris, but next week Olmert could help shape Middle East policy for Bush?s last year.
The finishing touches are being applied to preparations for next week's presidential visit. After more than 2,500 days in the White House, George W. Bush will grace the Holy Land with his presence, and Ehud Olmert can notch up an achievement denied to his predecessor, Ariel Sharon - of hosting an American president. The script for such an occasion almost writes itself. The president will visit all the usual Israeli and Jewish sites of history, heartbreak and heroism, identifying with our suffering and marveling at our achievements. In pledging allegiance to the peace process, Olmert and Bush will leave no vow of sincerity unspoken. Each country's media will speculate on motivations - Olmert may be hoping for a protective, pre-Winograd-report presidential blanket; Bush may want to leave behind a peace legacy. Everybody goes home happy, but that's it. Except, presidents don't visit every day, and today the dilemmas facing both nations as they look around the region seem more basic, weighty and troubling.
The story of Olmert's political journey and his frequent statements about Israel's future suggest that he is not in office to tread water; he has a purpose. The one part of the visit that is probably not finalized - what Olmert intends to tell Bush in private - provides Israel's leader with an opportunity to develop the kind of substantive agenda with which he has previously flirted.
It would require a little hubris, but next week Olmert could help shape Middle East policy for Bush's last year. And let's face it, for an Israeli leader to display some chutzpah would hardly be breaking new ground.
Here's how Olmert's talking points for such a conversation might read:
1. Israel is ready to help restabilize the Middle East over the next 12 months.
2. On Iran, Israel's concern is not with the findings of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, but with the prospect of a resulting policy drift, whereby both coercion and diplomacy are mutually neutralizing rather than strengthening. U.S. policy seems to be moving inexorably toward dialogue with Iran - from the 2006 conditional offer of negotiations to the ongoing limited exchange regarding Iraq, including reports by the U.S. military of a drop in Iranian arming of the insurgency there. The recent U.S.-North Korea talks have not escaped Israel's attention. If the core outstanding issues with Iran can be resolved diplomatically, Israel would not be opposed; behavior change, not regime change, is the shared goal. Better not to waste time. The limited existing dialogue could be broadened and upgraded. Israel has confidence in the most qualified candidate to lead these talks, Under- Secretary Nicholas Burns.
3. Early on in this broadened dialogue, the U.S. might prod Iran to influence Palestinian groups (Islamic Jihad and Hamas) to adhere to a new cease-fire. Several senior ministers, especially the ex-generals among them, are advocating a cease-fire with Hamas and a prisoner exchange to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit. The alternatives - militarily unattractive - may produce more chaos in Gaza, a more radicalized Hamas, and new openings for Al-Qaida-style outfits. The Annapolis process would benefit from an effective cease-fire and improved security environment.
4. If this leads to Fatah and Hamas exploring new understandings for Palestinian power-sharing, especially if brokered by the Egyptians or Saudis, then the best U.S.-Israeli response might be to test the results on the ground. In retrospect, actively undermining the previous Palestinian unity government was not smart.
5. Israel's talks with the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian team will be turbulent, certainly when it comes to the daily issues and roadmap commitments, on which 100 percent delivery by either side is unrealistic. As discussed at Annapolis, an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement on permanent status issues is possible during the term of this U.S. administration. Privately, American involvement toward this end would be welcome.
6. A regional stabilization effort cannot ignore Syria. While the Israeli political math probably precludes a parallel agreement with Syria, serious negotiations are possible and desirable. This option is supported by almost all of Israel's top military brass. Current American policy reflects Syria's mixed scorecard - attendance at Annapolis and stepped-up efforts to secure the Iraqi-Syrian border (acknowledged by the Pentagon), while simultaneously contributing to the political impasse in Lebanon. But launching a sustainable Israeli-Syrian process requires U.S. engagement and could even pave the way to fresh thinking about a comprehensive regional security architecture. This could be developed by new security envoy General James Jones and build on the Arab Peace Initiative and the regional participation at Annapolis.
The Bush administration seems to be thinking hard about what to do in the Middle East in its last year. Israel's prime minister can always switch to autopilot and a safe, predictable and forgettable script. Alternately, Olmert can adopt bold talking points that will echo in Washington long after wheels-up on Air Force One, that offer Israel the best prospect for securing its future in the region, and that could just keep him in office well beyond the date when a certain visitor retires to his Texan ranch.
Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.