Bush vs. Olmert

It's strange that Bush is preventing Olmert from taking the step that could rescue him from his political decline: a renewal of negotiations with Syria.

The support of the U.S. administration is a central pillar of Ehud Olmert's government. The Americans are pleased with the prime minister, who makes sure to coordinate everything with them and helps their friends in the region, and they prefer him to Benjamin Netanyahu. That's why it's strange that Bush is preventing Olmert from taking the step that could rescue him from his political decline: a renewal of negotiations with Syria.

The precedents are familiar from the days of Ariel Sharon, who several times faced internal problems and a decline in the polls because of the increase in terror, the diplomatic freeze and the investigations. Each time Sharon was rescued when he adopted steps initiated by his political rivals. In 2002, under pressure from Netanyahu, he sent the Israel Defense Forces to capture the West Bank cities in Operation Defensive Shield. A few months later he began construction of the separation fence, which was initiated by Ehud Barak and his associates Uzi Dayan and Dan Meridor. At the end of 2003, Sharon stole the idea initiated by Amram Mitzna, who had lost to him in the elections, and announced his decision to withdraw from Gush Katif.

What all Sharon's changes in direction had in common was that none of them originated with him. The ideas were familiar; all he had to do was adopt them, while ignoring his previous viewpoints; and then he carried them out with typical persistence. Sharon bequeathed to Olmert the precedent that the prime minister is allowed to disregard the statements he made yesterday if he is convinced that doing so is in "the national interest."

Olmert's situation is more comfortable than Sharon's was. His party, Kadima, has no ideology or principles, only a desire to rule. This approach enabled Olmert to form the most stable coalition we have had here, after many years of crises and ups and downs. He is, however, paying the price in the loss of public support. The public appreciates political stability, but prefers leadership that radiates hope and shows the way.

Olmert gambled on a renewal of the negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, as overseen by Condoleezza Rice. That looks good abroad and improves Israel's regional and international status. But on the home front, the talks with the Palestinians are of no value. Everyone knows that the meetings with Abbas will not lead anywhere, and the public does not believe in them or take any interest in them. Even if Olmert releases thousands of prisoners, opens dozens of checkpoints and transfers checks to Fatah in dollars, it is doubtful whether his position in the polls would improve even slightly. In the absence of a strong leader on the other side who can guarantee quiet, and a reliable system for intercepting the Qassams, which will protect the greater Tel Aviv area, Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion airport from the Palestinian rockets, Israel will not evacuate the West Bank and will not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The only thing that can increase support for Olmert is a renewal of the negotiations with Syria. Most of the public is in favor of a positive response to Bashar Assad. Talks with Syria will demonstrate diplomatic progress, even without Israel's evacuation of the Golan; that was the practice of Olmert's predecessors, from Yitzhak Shamir to Barak. More importantly, talks would improve stability in the North and distance the danger of another war this summer, a possibility that is becoming lodged in Israeli awareness as a type of unavoidable disaster.

But Olmert has a problem: Bush is not allowing him to talk to Assad. American officials who are asked about a revival of the Syrian channel respond by reading out the long list of crimes committed by Damascus, including its support for terror from Gaza to Baghdad. If the choice is between pursuing the ideological war against terror and a realistic policy that would preserve Olmert's government, Bush prefers the ideology.

But there may be another explanation, which is more worrisome for Olmert: that the Americans assume he cannot survive, and it's a waste to help a bankrupt enterprise.