Mr. Olmert Goes to Washington 23.5.2006

Mr. Olmert Goes to Washington

Today, Singapore, 23/05/2006

 This week, Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert is on his first pilgrimage to Washington, de rigeur for Israel’s leaders who, upon taking up their post need to shore up US support for whatever problematic policies the State of Israel intends to pursue. The reason this is necessary, lest we forget, is that with the exception of Micronesia and occasionally a European nation or two, the US is the only country whose support for Israel can be relied upon. The US has granted its customary support rarely enthusiastically, often skeptically and every once in a while accompanied by strong criticism.

 The present US administration has been most supportive of Israel’s policy goals and former PM Sharon and President Bush, both ranchers and down to earth, saw eye to eye on almost everything concerning the Middle East. Bush was in awe of Sharon’s qualities as a leader and there was an obvious rapport between the two and he became the most frequent visitor in the White House among all the heads of state that visited Washington during this administration.

 Ehud Olmert, no Sharon, travels to Washington under difficult circumstances and needs to build his own relationship with Bush. The Peace Process is dead and relations with the Palestinians are somewhere between enmity and open warfare. Israel has not decided if Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for meaningful negotiations and the Palestinians haven’t resolved if they want to fight a civil war or rather agree and find a way to talk to Israel using President Mahmoud Abbas as a go-between as long as the Hamas government remains shunned.

 Against this backdrop, Olmert, while assuring Bush that he prefers to negotiate first, will seek support for the concept of unilateral withdrawal, anathema to the Palestinians and the international community. The US administration doesn’t like it either but under present circumstances it may be the only practical way to move ahead. If Bush concurs he will want to make sure that any Israeli withdrawal will be substantial, more substantial than Olmert will want to concede.

All this is the easy part because whatever the agreement with the US, realities on the ground will eventually determine what happens and Bush is loath to put serious pressure on Israel. Israel’s PM may even solicit and receive limited commitments for financial support if the proposed withdrawal is really significant.

 But now comes the hard part – Iran. There is no doubt that Iran overshadows this summit. Olmert will have to impress on Bush the reality that Iran under Ahmadinejad is an existential threat to Israel and that this problem will have to be solved on Bush’s watch in a way that will leave Iran without nuclear weapon capabilities. Israel’s PM will have to walk a fine line generating real support and understanding without appearing to push the US towards a military solution, something Israel and its lobby in Washington were accused of in the run-up to the war with Iraq. Israel will want iron-clad US guarantees for protection from an Iranian attack. These better be forthcoming or Israel will have to draw its own conclusions.

 It will be interesting to see if a scheduled one-on-one meeting between the two leaders will serve to amend the Israeli position on nuclear weapons. The time may have come for Israel to drop ambiguity and show its nuclear cards in order to deter Iran or else make it possible to discuss nuclear issues in the framework of a Middle Eastern disarmament initiative. This could be an interesting outcome of the meeting in Washington although it is far from certain that such an idea would even be contemplated or, if endorsed, would help at all to defuse Ahmadinejad’s challenge.

 Ehud Olmert will get all the honors Washington knows to bestow on welcome guests. He will meet Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, spend several hours in the White House for talks, have dinner with the President and address a joint session of congress. All these efforts cannot detract from the fact that President Bush, weakened by low approval ratings, has no desire to invest himself deeply in the notoriously treacherous and politically unrewarding Middle East where smoother operators have failed miserably. He probably feels the same about Iran but there he won’t have the luxury to follow his feelings. Ahmadinejad will not give in, the clock is ticking and Israel is unlikely to take a soft line if Bush hedges.

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