Ehud Olmert did indeed receive a magnificent reception at the White House last month, and he must have been delighted when President George W. Bush signaled his intention to retain with him the warm relationship built up with Ariel Sharon.
In turn, Olmert acquitted himself with distinction, maximizing his communication skills. He delivered a magnificent address to the joint houses of Congress and his responses at the press conference were exemplary.
But aside from the important commitment by Bush to defend Israel against Iran, the warm messages of goodwill cannot conceal the fact that the visit failed to achieve any genuine political progress.
Even during the Sharon era the Americans had reservations about disengagement. In recent months, the Europeans warned the weakened president that they adamantly opposed endorsing borders unilaterally determined by the Israelis. In addition, the Jordanians pleaded with the White House to pressure Israel not to withdraw unilaterally because it would destabilize their regime.
Even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak urged Olmert not to proceed.
In this environment Bush softened his earlier vague reference to recognizing the reality of Israeli settlements, a reference Sharon had misleadingly spun as support of Israel’s right to annex the major settlement blocs. On this occasion Bush welcomed Olmert’s “bold initiative” but stressed that “no party should prejudice the outcome of final negotiations on a final status agreement.”
In other words, don’t rely on US or international recognition of unilaterally defined borders.
In a somewhat surrealist reverse scenario, it was therefore the Israeli prime minister who desperately tried to persuade the administration to endorse additional unilateral withdrawals.
OLMERT’S WARM welcome was also predicated on an obligation to reverse previously adopted policies. Prior to the trip he had been adamantly opposed to reopening negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, the impotent president of the Palestinian Authority. He realized that negotiating with a weakened Abbas would merely divert attention from Hamas and intensify demands for further unacceptable concessions.
Olmert had rightly said that “there can only be a reason for a meeting [with Abbas] if it serves a political purpose. If the government is Hamas, what political purpose can it serve?”
But with a little arm-twisting the Americans managed to persuade him to repeat the same blunder committed by his predecessors vis-a-vis Arafat.
Olmert is now obliged to close his eyes to the fact that Abbas initiated the “prisoners’ letter” hoax, which calls for uniting Hamas and Islamic Jihad with the PA while demanding a “right of return” Arab refugees and an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines – in short, a prescription for the demise of Israel.
By renewing negotiations with Abbas, Olmert will also ease the barriers inhibiting a European accommodation of Hamas.
HOWEVER, THE most sobering example of capitulating to American directives was the mind-boggling decision to permit weapons to be made available to 10,000 members of Abbas’s presidential guard.
It is inconceivable that, of his own accord, Olmert would have agreed to repeat the tragic blunder of Oslo, when Palestinian militias were provided with Israeli weapons that were subsequently employed to kill Jews.
To underline the obscene nature of this bizarre and shameful arrangement, Abbas subsequently appointed Col. Mahmoud Damra as overall commander of his presidential guard. Damra is on Israel’s most wanted list of terrorists for having carried out deadly attacks against Israeli citizens, planted bombs, and reportedly organized suicide missions.
OLMERT ALSO seems to have alienated American conservatives. A recent article by former CIA chief James Woolsey in the Wall Street Journal described the Gaza withdrawal as an abject failure and detrimental to US interests because it “also makes the US look weak.” He claimed, moreover, that the withdrawal led to the strengthening of all terror groups in the region and contributed to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections.
Woolsey warned that there was no basis for negotiating with the Palestinians so long as the centerpiece of their agenda remained maximizing Jewish deaths and “ending the occupation” – code for justifying terror.
He stated that a genuine two-state solution could become a reality only when Palestinians were held to the same standards as Israelis, and when Jewish settlers in a Palestinian state could be treated the same way as Israel treats its Arab citizens. Until that day, Woolsey maintained, Israel should offer no further concessions.
Even the unabashedly pro-Israeli evangelical Christian, Joseph Farah, editor of WorldNet Daily, went so far as to say “I give up on Israel” because its “national retreat” amounts to “appeasement of the global Jihad.”
Even more worrisome, many American Jews from both sides of the political spectrum have begun publicly condemning Israeli policies – a trend which will have highly negative repercussions if it is not reversed.
To top this off, in Israel the outgoing head of the National Security Council, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland described the country’s decision-making process as “unsound” and described the disengagement from Gaza as a “missed opportunity of historic proportions.”
One can thus only hope that Olmert’s first encounter with the Bush administration as prime minister will encourage him, at least for the time being, to desist from further unilateral withdrawals, especially if they would strengthen Hamas. Besides, no one has yet explained how in the absence of anticipated American economic aid, an issue the White House pointedly ignored, the Olmert government could conceivably cover the astronomical costs of withdrawing 70,000 settlers without wrecking the entire Israeli economy.
OLMERT SHOULD dispense with rhetoric and adopt pragmatic policies that can serve the long-term strategic interests of Israel.
Who knows, perhaps in a distant utopian future, with reconstructed Palestinians willing to coexist with us, international support could be forthcoming. For now the premier can reiterate that the consensus among Israelis today clearly favors a two-state solution and a desire to separate from the Palestinians. But until Israel’s neighbors are reconciled to its existence, beyond minor adjustments designed to improve security, Israel should not make major territorial concessions.
Such concessions would never be recognized by the international community and would, moreover, necessitate cashing in the remaining bargaining chips required for a negotiated end to the conflict.
If Olmert moves in this direction he will also avoid the most painful possible domestic schism, one that would undoubtedly create enormous dissension and lead to violent upheavals throughout the nation.
The prime minister should, then, concentrate on resolving outstanding domestic problems: first and foremost the need to restore harmony and heal the pain from the events of the past year, and ensure that the resilient economy is maintained in a compassionate manner.
Olmert’s first priority, in a word, should be to restore unity and stabilize the nation.