The Annapolis summit and the efforts to revive the peace process have exacerbated the tension that already existed between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Olmert's personal charm doesn't work on Rice, and the Prime Minister's Office is anxious about her tendency to push ahead too quickly with political contacts.
The latest point of friction had to do with the conference of donor countries to the Palestinians that took place in Paris last week. Rice wanted to proceed from the conference to Jerusalem, to make sure that the political process hadn't withered and died after the fanfare in Annapolis. There was a decision already. What made her change her mind and not come? One version has it that she received a message from the White House not to rush things, to give the Israelis and Palestinians some time to work things out without her.
Olmert's bureau denies that Israel intervened to block Rice's visit. David Welch, her aide on Middle East affairs, who had visited Israel a few days before that, felt that in any event, she wouldn't be able to achieve much with a lightning visit so soon after Annapolis. The Americans say they don't want Rice's visits to become just a worthless routine. It was clear that this time, nothing much could come of it.
In private conversations - and as she said in Annapolis - Rice tends to compare the Israeli occupation in the territories to the racial segregation that used to be the norm in the American South. The Israel Defense Forces checkpoints where Palestinians are detained remind her of the buses she rode as a child in Alabama, which had separate seats for blacks and whites. This is an uncomfortable comparison, of course, for the Israelis, who view it as "over-identification" on her part with Palestinian suffering. For some leaders of American Jewish organizations, who weren't all that fond of Rice to begin with, her use of this image was the last straw. Rice is now marked as an enemy. It's also easier for them to blame her, rather than the president, for an approach that's not to their liking.
But Rice's anger at Israel really derives from more current events: She was deeply offended at the height of the Second Lebanon War, while preparing to leave for Beirut to pull together a cease-fire, when the IDF killed Lebanese civilians during the bombing of Kafr Kana. Her trip was canceled at the last minute, the war went on for more than another two weeks, and some who know her say that Rice never forgave Israel for this slap in the face.
In recent months, she's been heard grumbling about Israel's foot-dragging in carrying out good-will gestures toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The tension became more open in connection with the Annapolis summit, say Israeli sources. Rice changed the title of the event from "an international meeting" to a "summit," despite Israel's express objections. She supported the Palestinian position, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in tandem with the implementation of the road map. Israel balked, and managed to win consent for "sequential" implementation - that is, first a war on terror and then a Palestinian state.
When the leaders met with President George W. Bush prior to the official start of the summit, Olmert said that if he had any disagreements with Rice, he would turn to the president. "You'll get the same answer from him," Rice said. Olmert insisted on his right to appeal to the White House. Bush listened and didn't say anything, but officials in Washington advise that one shouldn't attach too much importance to this silence. Bush likes Olmert, but he likes Rice a lot more. Something very serious would have to happen for the president to override her authority. And she's smart enough not to clash with Israel without first checking with the president just how far she can go.
Israel needs an unofficial channel of communication, a "Rice bypass road," to the White House. Steve Hadley, the national security advisor, who was Rice's deputy during Bush's first term, is very close to her and wouldn't operate behind her back. And there is no Jewish leader in the Republican Party who, like Max Fisher in the past, has sufficient enough influence to just phone up the president and quietly take care of things. Most Jewish Republicans who have a degree of access to the White House are not fans of the political process, and some are busy promoting the campaign against a division of Jerusalem, an effort that Olmert perceives as a personal campaign against him and in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu. Which basically leaves Olmert as the guy who can communicate with Bush.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is maintaining her own channel of communication with her American counterpart, even if it appears that their initial mutual infatuation has faded. At the Prime Minister's Office, the focus is now on Bush's January 9th visit. Expected to top the agenda is the Iranian threat and the ramifications of the American intelligence report that said Iran is not planning to develop a military nuclear capability. On the Palestinian issue, those in Olmert's circle believe that Bush will make do with some nice words and not bug his hosts with demands to evacuate outposts and remove checkpoints. Rice will have to deal with these troubles after Bush goes back home. And she apparently has every intention of doing so.
Thanks for dinner
On Wednesday afternoon, Olmert bid farewell to his spokesperson to the foreign press, Miri Eisen, and as usual, peppered his talk with plenty of jokes and soccer anecdotes. He patted the head of Yiftah, Eisen's oldest child, and described how he showed him the autographed shirt he received from Ronaldinho, the Brazilian soccer star. Afterward, he met with the five members of the Meretz Knesset faction. It's hard to believe that on the same day, the 2008 state budget was passed in the Knesset, five days before the deadline, without creating any political noise or revolts within the coalition.
"The days of the budget" used to be a synonym for crisis. Not with Olmert: This is the second year in a row that the budget has quietly slipped through the political system. Before the good-bye party for Eisen, the prime minister sat down with Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and budget director Kobi Haber. No tension or stress was evident on their faces when they emerged from their meeting. The vote in the Knesset plenum at the end of the evening was postponed by an hour, so Olmert would have time to attend the conference of the Or Yarok (Green Light) road safety organization. Obviously, he didn't feel any pressure to be present beforehand to iron out any last-minute problems.
"You see, there is a functioning government," Olmert boasts. It's certainly easier to get a budget passed when the economy is booming and the state is collecting a lot of taxes. And there's a personal aspect, too: Olmert, the "professor of politics," as Meretz members called him at the start of their meeting, is more skilled than his predecessors at managing his relations with the coalition and the opposition. He doesn't portray his ministers as a bunch of honor-obsessed idiots, as previous prime ministers have done, and the ministers don't complain about his insensitivity and arrogance. Nor do they have any reason to. Cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel, the coalition's maintenance man, is always at their disposal. Any time a minister wishes to speak to or meet with the prime minister, he can expect an immediate response.
One minister from Labor, who was invited with his wife to have dinner with Ehud and Aliza Olmert, received the following treatment: The prime minister showed up right on time, even though he was busy with security matters (of which the minister was aware). Earlier that evening, there'd been an unflattering report about Olmert on television, but the prime minister ignored it and chatted with his guests as if nothing had happened. He even declined to take a call from his media advisor. The next day, Olmert phoned the minister and told him that he'd had a wonderful evening. Another day passed, and Aliza Olmert called the minister's wife to thank her for the lovely evening. And as if that weren't enough, on Sunday Yehezkel caught up with the minister as he was on his way to the cabinet meeting and said something like: I don't know what you two did, but he (Olmert) hasn't stopped talking about you for the past three days.
Instead of speaking to the public and granting interviews to the press - an approach that proved detrimental to Barak and Netanyahu as prime ministers - Olmert invests his time in the "100 most influential people" who will affect his political survival. He knows how to talk to win their sympathy. True, Olmert isn't yet popular in the polls, but his government is showing some impressive political stability - so much so that the looming Winograd report doesn't even seem that threatening. The threat of early elections is also fading, as Minister Haim Ramon proudly noted this week.
Who is weak?
Rice's exasperation with Israel's behavior stems primarily from the gap between expectations and results, and from the fast-dwindling time she has left on the seventh floor of the U.S. State Department. Rice thinks that Israel received a lot and didn't give anything in return. As she sees it, the Bush administration gave Israel two important gifts in the president's April, 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon: implied recognition of the settlement blocs, and a demand that the refugees return to the Palestinian state and not to Israel. But Israel isn't responding with the proper counter-gestures. Here, however, they say that Rice received plenty and that she ought to be more patient. After all, within a month, Israel went to the major political event in Annapolis, and then the donor countries agreed to give the PA even more than she asked for. That's not bad for such a short time. What's her big rush?
The problem is that Rice embarked on this campaign in the belief that she would succeed in cutting the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She hoped that in Annapolis principles would be set down for a final-status accord, but Israel told her that wasn't going to happen. She thinks that the PA is making satisfactory progress with the reform of its security forces, while officials in Israel say she's exaggerating and that the reform is still very far from accomplishing anything. She wanted to Israel to make more good-will gestures, but the Israelis remind here that this will be hard to do as long as Qassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot. She wanted to see outposts evacuated, and in Israel they blew her off, citing the danger it would pose to the coalition.
Whether Israel likes it or not, it has been cast in the role of the obstacle, as the one putting the brakes on - while Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad are seen as the ones who want to make progress. Rice, too, wants things to move. The brakes bother her. Though there are times when she's convinced that it's appropriate, lately it's been ticking her off more.
Israel shouldn't be surprised by Rice's irritation. Rice can see just as well as the next person how easily the budget was passed in Israel, and has to be asking herself whether the cliche about "a weak Olmert" isn't just an excuse for more foot-dragging. This is where the difference between her and Bush is most noticeable. She's not a politician; he is. Even those of her disciples who believe she has a good grasp of strategy in the Middle East - and there are many - will also admit that the political arena is foreign to her. Certainly the complex Israeli political arena with its myriad players, big and small. And still, Rice's people ask: Not even one outpost? One little pre-fab?
Rice is right in saying that Israel is not making good on its commitment on this matter, but in Israel they say that fulfilling the obligation would sabotage more important moves. Will the coalition's stability endure when the government tries to evacuate outposts, or to make serious progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians? Rice wants to believe that the answer is yes, but no one in Israel is willing to bet on it. The word in Olmert's bureau is that the coalition relies on the distinction between "theory and deed." As long as we're only talking with the Palestinians, everyone can sit comfortably in their cabinet seats. But a forceful evacuation of settlers, or far-reaching understandings with Abbas, could upset the partnership with Lieberman and Shas. Olmert is well aware of this, and prefers to maintain the coalition and the government over making any serious moves in the territories. For Rice to understand this too, however, she'll have to be convinced each time anew.