Words, Words, Words

Olmert believes that Syria's peace overtures are not serious and that only verbal support should be offered to Mahmoud Abbas

Ehud Olmert came to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday. In the Israeli system of government, a committee session is the only place where Olmert and opposition leaders can officially clash, face to face. This week's session was not, however, a routine one, but a small victory celebration: Olmert came to celebrate the fact that Avigdor Lieberman had joined the government, which had been approved earlier that day, and to demonstrate that he was freeing himself from the woes of the recent Lebanon war, his decline in the polls and the calls for his resignation.

"Yvet [Lieberman's nickname] will operate under me with ministerial authority, concerning the issue of strategic threats," the prime minister explained to the committee. "I listen to you talking, and I understand that there are those that cannot forgive Yvet for joining the government and blocking their own way in to the government."

Benjamin Netanyahu, participants in the session relate, sat quietly and did not react.

That's Olmert. He will never miss an opportunity for a taunt, a little spat. He is known as someone who compulsively fixes his interlocutor's mistakes. He has an excellent memory and a clear penchant for detail. The struggle with the state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, will yet provide him with many opportunities to demonstrate his head for details and his abilities as a lawyer.

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is not, however, the proper forum for talking about selling apartments and bank shares, but rather about war and peace. The most interesting part of the meeting was Olmert's lengthy explanation of why he rejected Syrian President Bashar Assad's offer of peace and disregarded his threats of war. That will be Olmert's defense brief if war breaks out on the Golan Heights, and proof of his astuteness if Assad backs down.

Yossi Beilin, the leader of Meretz-Yahad, raised the issue: "There is a need to return to negotiations with Syria. I have heard two things from you: that you will not give up the Golan, and that if the Syrians were serious about peace, they would close the terrorist headquarters in Damascus. You're telling Assad that he will never achieve his goal - the Golan - and [at the same time] you want a sign of his seriousness. [Under those conditions] there is no chance that he will give up on the terrorist headquarters."

Olmert did not restrain himself in his response: "When I see the solemn seriousness with which you lecture me about peace with Syria, I recall that just two months ago, you begged me, privately and publicly, to launch a military attack on Syria. I thought you were wrong then, and I think you are wrong now. Sometimes one has to talk with a little less certainty."

Jews and Israelis have a desire, the prime minister added sharply, "a real need for words of love from Arab leaders. We all have it; it's part of our genetic make-up. When Assad says a few words we all get excited, and this over-eagerness harms our own interests ... It is obvious that when Assad wants peace, he will want something in return, and it is obvious that it will be a return to the 1967 lines."

A small argument broke out in the committee over the location of the future border, and Olmert continued: "Let us say we agree to relinquish the Golan. But there isn't a single expert who has assured me that we will get the rest of the elements in the equation. Let's say that Syria announces that if it makes peace with us and gets the Golan, it will cut ties with Iran, expel the terrorists from Damascus and stop supplying arms to Hezbollah. Under those circumstances, let us say that it's worthwhile. But there is not a single expert who could say that that's how it would actually turn out - that if we return the Golan, Syria would become a moderate state, the age of redemption would dawn, Hezbollah would cease to exist and [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal would no longer be based [in Damascus]."

He turned to Beilin. "I also heard you say that if there are no negotiations, there is a military option, and that needs to be avoided. Let's say that we negotiate and it doesn't work out, and Assad doesn't get the Golan. His desire to go for the military option will only increase, not diminish."

The prime minister rejected assertions that the U.S. administration has stopped him from exploring the Syrian track: "I have never heard from any serious American source state that we should not deal with Syria. No one has told me what to do or what not to do. There is no pressure on us on this matter." In other words: The responsibility is mine and I do not share it with anyone else.

And he gave other arguments. "If we speak with Meshal's patron, what European leader would not say to us: 'Speak with Meshal himself, and with [Palestinian prime minister] Haniyeh'? Who would then agree to our boycott of Hamas because of its refusal to recognize Israel? Look at America - what inducements they offered Assad. Far, far more than we have to offer. And look what they got in return? So should we jump into the pool before we check if there's water in it?"

Concessions? In Gaza?

How do you know that Ehud Olmert is about to go to Washington? Very simple: Read the cabinet decisions. If you find promises there to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and "to make concessions on humanitarian grounds" to the population in the Gaza Strip, you can assume there is a need to satisfy the Americans. The concessions were made public - what a coincidence - hours before U.S. administration emissaries David Walsh and Elliott Abrams arrived to prepare Olmert's trip to the United States. That is how one shrugs off the their perennial demands to back Abu Mazen and to open the Gaza border crossings.

This time the envoys arrived with an ambitious plan that was formulated by Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who is coordinating security vis-a-vis the Palestinians for the administration. The United States wants to push Abu Mazen into a military confrontation in Gaza, which will topple the Hamas government. Dayton took the mission seriously and drew up an outline for training and equipping the forces loyal to Abu Mazen, with rifles from Jordan and Egypt, and British and Egyptian instructors.

There has been less enthusiasm in Israel. Who needs to provoke the political right at this time into declaring, "You gave them guns again"? But it is hard to refuse the Americans; and the solution was to affirm the Dayton plan in principle, without committing to its details (which were not even presented to the cabinet ministers). That way Olmert's visit can take place in a calm atmosphere and thereafter, the promises will be forgotten, as after all visits in the past.

When Olmert is asked about backing Abu Mazen, he answers as always by quarreling with the media. "It's not new. When I speak about strengthening him, they tell me that that will be like a bear hug, which will kill him. And if I don't say [anything], they say I'm not helping him."

The prime minister understands that the PA chairman is struggling with a tough situation, but he will not strengthen him by releasing prisoners. Only with warm words.