When Speaker of the House Nancy came back from her Mideast trip, I wrote briefly about her frustration with the Israeli government and the way it handled her visit to Damascus: "Pelosi", I wrote, "didn't like the Israeli clarification. It made her look slightly ridiculous, like a rookie in foreign policy." I also mentioned that it was not her first frustration with Olmert. He knows how politically sensitive are the issues of American policy in the region but "nonetheless decided to present an explicit Israeli policy regarding Iraq identical to that of Bush in a speech to AIPAC."
And this wasn't even the first time that Olmert marched into this mine field. Visiting the White House in November, right after the Midterm elections, he felt the need to say that he is "very much impressed and encouraged by the stability which the great operation of America in Iraq brought to the Middle East." When I wrote about it back then (What was Olmert thinking when he talked about Iraq?) I suggested that "Democratic politicians I've been able to contact today were gracious enough not to attack Olmert for his statements. But let me tell you this: They weren't happy. My guess is that Israel is going to be hearing from them."
And let me tell you this: Some of them now do.
Just look at the statement released today by two important Democratic House members, Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Gary Ackerman: "The controversy from the recent congressional delegation led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been entirely overblown. Democratic members were pleased to learn of the cordial conversation between Speaker Pelosi and the Prime Minister following her visit. That alone should be underscored to resolutely put an end to any confusion over this incident."
Now, why would a member of Congress feel the need to clarify that a conversation was "cordial"?
The Waxman-Ackerman statement doesn't leave any room for guessing game. They were troubled by the continuous speculation and discussion of the Israel-Democratic feud, as was lastly presented by my friend Natan Guttman in The Forward. "Democrats are still angry about what they see as Olmert's desperate attempts to align himself with President Bush even if it means wading into American political controversies," he wrote. And he was not the first one to highlight this Democratic frustration. A week ago, Ron Kampeas of JTA wrote essentially the same: "Democrats were appalled [by Olmert's statement] - Olmert's abruptness and tone left the delegation feeling he was 'clumsy,' one participant said."
But if you think the problem is Pelosi's trip to Damascus, think again. This morning I got an email from one of the most knowledgable Israelis when it comes to Israel-U.S. relations. This is what he wrote: "It started with Olmert's declaration that the U.S. must not leave Iraq, two days after Democrats won Congress..."
And I agree. Look at the quote I mentioned in a November '06 story: "If Olmert planned his comments and intended them to come out as they did, a Democratic official said, then they are not acceptable and can be seen as an attempt to influence the American political dispute."
But Olmert did it again in his AIPAC speech, and it was not a slip of the tongue. As Aluf Benn and explained in our column a couple of weeks ago, he had his reasons: An "assessment document he had received recently, which warned of the implications of an American exit from Iraq for Jordan, a country perceived by Jerusalem as a strategic asset, the stability of which is a supreme Israeli interest. An American withdrawal now, before Iraq stabilizes, would have immediate repercussions for the domestic situation in Jordan, and this is liable to be dangerous."
Thus, this long story became a dangerous habit.
So where do we go from here?
As Guttman wrote Thursday: "Israeli officials and Democratic lawmakers are working to mend fences", and the Waxman-Ackerman statement is a first sign. Sources in Washington told me today that next week, when all the Democratic Presidential hopefuls will appear before delegates to the National Jewish Democratic Council conference, we will see more of this conciliatory tone coming to fore.
However, this source said, "even as our leadership is working to calm things down, the rank and file Democrats are getting tired of these Israeli maneuvers." If Israel doesn't "get its act together" and doesn't reciprocate these pacifying moves - "if Olmert keeps doing such irresponsible things" - it will get more "difficult for Democrats who do care about Israel" to defend their position.
It almost sounded like a threat.