Olmert Reminds Rice: Bush Is Still Her Boss

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is used to engaging in a diplomatic game of sorts with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visits to the Middle East. Rice tries to demonstrate American involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while Olmert politely reminds her that her boss at the White House, George W. Bush, afford her little slack.

On her penultimate visit to Jerusalem six weeks ago, Rice discovered upon her arrival that Olmert had informed the media about his telephone conversation with Bush the previous day. "The prime minister and president see eye-to-eye," said a high ranking political official in Jerusalem.

The message was unmistakable: What Rice had to say barely mattered. Olmert had it all worked out with the president. Rice did not like it, but proceeded according to plan in convening the triple summit in Jerusalem with Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The summit came and went with no real effect.

Upon her return to the region last week, Rice was met by Olmert's lack of interest again. "His willingness to promote the negotiations has cooled down," one of her advisers noted.

At their meeting, Olmert rejected her offer to engage in negotiations on a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians, which were designed to present them with "a political horizon." He answered that they had to first release IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas on June 25. Rice contented herself with minor and technical "achievements" such as the appointment of Security Coordinator Lieutenant General Keith Dayton to reorganize the forces loyal to Abbas.

Olmert is making use of the differences in opinions among administration members regarding the diplomatic process' chances of survival and viability. Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, have concocted an initiative aimed at strengthening Abbas and coaxing the Palestinians into combating terror. They sought to demonstrate to moderate forces that they stand to gain from combating terror by holding negotiations over the nature of a future Palestinian state.

Rice is among the most committed in the administration to the Palestinian cause. Her dedication stems from a combination of personal history (she grew up as an African American in the racist climate of the southern U.S.) and the classic dilemma of her post, which endures pressure from Arab and European countries.

She believes the solution is already known to all, albeit hard to achieve. Her approach and basic outline of a plan resemble those of former U.S. president Bill Clinton. But her boss is not Clinton. Rice even has to contend with skeptics within the ranks of her own department, most notably Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, who holds the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio in the White House. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources say that Abrams believes her plan will likely fail.

Abrams is often portrayed as being extremely hawkish, but he is far from the Likud's man in Washington. He helped broker a deal for reducing the number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank under former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Unlike Rice, he is in favor of unilateral steps in the spirit of the realignment plan. Rice, in contrast, believes the Palestinians constitute a peace partner in the form of Mahmoud Abbas.

Despite their different approaches, Abrams and Rice maintain a good working relationship and they agree on many key issues. They are, however, not equal powers.

Rice is, after all, among Bush's closest allies. Nonetheless, he is adamant over his demands that the Palestinians abandon terror. The president, therefore, allows Rice to travel and orchestrate various negotiations but not to pressure Olmert, at least not before the Palestinians hold up their part of the bargain.