Olmert and Bush / 45 Minutes of Smiles

WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised there would be no big headlines or new political initiatives during his Washington visit, and he kept his word. His short meeting with President George Bush, a mere 45 minutes, did not provide a solution to the question, where is Olmert going and what is his agenda? It simply showed that the Israeli prime minister's indecisions are shared by his partner in the White House.

The only headline was Olmert's declaration the war in Iraq had brought stability to the region and made a "dramatic positive contribution" to the strategic position of Israel and moderate Arab states. His public thanks to Bush for invading Iraq joins Olmert's public call of a few days ago for the Americans not to withdraw from there in haste.

Thus Olmert broke the taboo imposed by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, on Israeli statements about Iraq. Sharon feared Israel and its Jewish supporters in the administration would be blamed for getting the Americans stuck in the Iraqi quagmire so as to further Israeli interests.

Now Olmert heads the list of the opponents of an American withdrawal from Iraq. His position is not without reason. From the point of view of Israel and the "axis of the moderate" Arab states - Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - it is better to have an American army in Iraq, albeit beaten and wounded, than an extremist Shi'ite state operating under the influence of Iran and exporting experienced terrorists to the entire region.

But by coming out publicly on the matter, Olmert has taken Bush's side in the internal American debate, and has placed himself in opposition to the new Democratic leaders in Congress, who last week won the midterm elections because of their opposition to the war in Iraq.

How to block the Iranian threat was at the top of the agenda in the Bush-Olmert meeting, and the prime minister said, as he is wont, he was very satisfied with this part of their discussion. It is not clear from what exactly. At the news conference, the president sounded uncommitted when he called for worldwide opposition to Iran.

This means that responsibility for placing economic sanctions and isolating the Iranians lies also with Russia and the Europeans, and not merely the U.S.

Olmert made vague declarations about Iran and intimated he would impose stricter discipline on Israeli politicians so as to prevent them from making threatening statements, an indirect reference to deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who hinted at action against Tehran.

Olmert can be satisfied with the public promises he heard from Bush, which strengthen the Israeli stand on the road map and the demands on the Palestinian government; reject the Syrian overtures for peace talks before Damascus changes its ways; and make a dialogue with Iran conditional on its stopping uranium enrichment.

The prime minister was in a cordial and relaxed mood. Bush received him well, and people who attended the meeting were impressed by the affection and openness between them.

At one point they spoke of their political difficulties at home, with Bush telling Olmert about the composition of the new Congress, and Olmert asking that senior administration officials meet with his new cabinet minister, Avigdor Lieberman.