The Message / Starting Off on the Right Foot

When U.S. President George W. Bush arrived at the president's residence in Jerusalem yesterday, a group of children were there to meet him on the red carpet. The kids, members of a Jerusalemite dance group, were waving American and Israeli flags to the sounds of Hava Nagilah. Bush, with President Shimon Peres walking by his side, was reserved at first.

Then he remembered that he has to put on a show for the cameras. So he walked up to the children, danced with them and shook hands. The kids were happy. "Bush touched me," one of them said as he was walking out. "Bush hugged me," another girls said. A third child trumped both their boasts. "He hugged me and had his picture taken with me," he said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was pleased, too. He was obviously excited. He had the honor of hosting the president of the United Stated in Jerusalem - an honor that eluded his predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak.

Olmert's earlier acquaintance with Bush was also evident in their behavior. They both made impromptu speeches, and they sounded less calculated than at other, similar occasions.

They also carried a similar message: It is in Israel's best interests to strike a deal with the Palestinians while Bush is still in office. In their tete-a-tete in the prime minister's residence, Bush spoke of the importance of moving forward, and the danger of foot-dragging and procrastination - which would cause him to lose interest.

He said he would covey a firm message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Bush said he would tell him that if Abbas wants to move forward toward a Palestinian state and avoid sinking into chaos, then he needs to get moving.

Bush pointed out to both parties that they had both failed to fulfill all their commitments. He promised he would demand that Abbas assume responsibility for Gaza and act against terrorists. Bush told the Israelis that the outposts have got to go. He did not neglect to point out with some impatience that the outposts have been discussed for four years now.

From Olmert's point of view, the main course was his off-cameras discussion with Bush on the Iranian issue. Olmert made meticulously prepared arguments in an attempt to persuade Bush that the U.S. National Intelligence Assessment - which alleged the Islamic Republic had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 - was wrong.

Olmert sees the Iranian and Palestinian issues as interlinked. It would be easier to market concession to the Palestinians, if the U.S. decidedly removes the Iranian threat by striking in Iran.

Bush would have an easier time selling that strike, if he can point to progress in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Except it would take more than a handshake between the two leaders to realize such a far-reaching deal.