WASHINGTON - Like in the film "Sliding Doors," which suggests two possible directions for one plot to take, it is possible to understand Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's short visit to Washington in two different ways. It all depends on how one sizes up Olmert: as a sharp and cagey businessman, or as a confused leader who has lost his way.
Plot A: The Wheeler-dealer. For about 40 years, the leaders of Israel have been grappling with the accusation that their declared intentions of peace are really mendacious cover for holding on to the territories. Abroad they talked about compromise, while at home they built more settlements.
Until Olmert came along and told U.S. President George W. Bush in May of this year: Take 90 percent of the West Bank for free and just let us get out. Ariel Sharon's unilateral exit from the Gaza Strip afforded believability to the idea of "convergence," and since then the pressure has been removed from Israel. "The world" accepted Olmert's claim that Hamas is not a partner for anything, and the famous "ball" of responsibility for the diplomatic stagnation was kicked deep into the Palestinian field.
That's when Olmert made the deal of his life. Bush and other leaders believed his declaration that he wanted to end the occupation and withdraw from the territories, even though he has neither evacuated a single Jewish settler nor paid the price for the domestic rift and the political crisis that accompanied the disengagement from Gaza. Construction in the settlement blocs has even been accelerated. But the territorial issue was stricken from the agenda, at least until a new "partner" hatches from the ruins of the Palestinian Authority.
This week Olmert returned to Washington and felt the winds of change. All the signs are indicating that the Bush administration is formulating a new policy for the Middle East. Everyone is talking about the change - about getting out of Iraq, about talking with Iran and Syria and about new intervention between Israel and the Palestinians.
That's when Olmert took an opposite tack. Instead of offering territories as a down payment, as he did on his previous visit, this time he said "no" to any change in the American position. He warned against a hasty exit from Iraq, opposed negotiations with Syria, demanded that Iran be frightened, turned down the idea of an international summit and insisted that the Palestinian government recognize Israel.
This is what a good merchant does: He lowers prices when demand is low and raises them when demand increases. The tough opening positions Olmert presented to Bush on this visit will compel the administration to reach an understanding with Israel on every change in American policy. Then Olmert will be able to present counter-demands, and get something in return instead of conceding in advance.
Plot B: The Loser. Battered and bruised from the war in Lebanon, from his collapse in the public-opinion polls and from the accusations of corruption at home, Olmert set out on a superfluous visit to Washington. Boarding "the prime minister's plane," with scores of bodyguards and a retinue of journalists, every politician turns into a statesman. How pleasant to be able to evade the troubles at home for a few days, to console Bush for his tumble in the Congressional elections and to meet the big donors in the Jewish community.
But en route to Washington it became clear to Olmert that the bastards had changed the rules, and that the administration is looking for a way out of the Iraqi quagmire and the diplomatic paralysis in the Middle East. In the absence of a plan or agenda of his own, beyond day-to-day survival in power, Olmert clung to conservative positions and presented a long list of "nos." His flexibility boiled down to a series of "yes, buts": I will be glad to meet Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), but not to meet his demands; I am in favor of a compromise with Iran, but only after it's been frightened; I will talk to Syrian President Bashar Assad, but only after he changes.
There is logic to this approach. Any deviation or change of direction is liable to ignite a domestic debate and undermine the delicate political structure keeping Olmert's government alive. It would also be a shame to take unnecessary risks while the Americans are still trying to figure out what they want to do. Who knows what they will decide and when? In the meantime, it is possible to gain time.
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