Olmert Attempts to Bring Presidential Candidates Into Peace Process

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 06, 2007, issue of December 07, 2007.
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Washington - Looking to the post-Bush era in American politics, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is attempting to enlist leading presidential candidates to support his renewed push for a settlement with the Palestinians.

When Olmert was in the United States for the Annapolis, Md., peace summit, he took the opportunity to call each of the leading presidential candidates to brief them on the plans for engaging in final-status talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

“I found that all the candidates had a lot of good will toward Israel,” Olmert said later in a press briefing. “They were all very friendly and very appreciative of the fact that I called them.”

Ensuring support of the next administration for the Annapolis process may prove to be a difficult task. Democratic candidates, while supportive of greater American involvement in the Middle East peace process, are cautious not to embrace a plan devised by a Republican administration. Republican presidential hopefuls, on the other hand, are maintaining a skeptical approach toward the Palestinian side and have been distancing themselves from President Bush’s attempts to strike a deal.

Olmert’s round of phone calls, which took place shortly after he returned to Washington from Annapolis, included Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson.

“It definitely showed his desire to keep the candidates informed and to make sure they know what his views are and what kind of support he expects to get from the future leaders of the U.S.,” said an adviser to the Obama campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was an implicit request for backing the process.”

Obama was among the Democratic candidates to praise the Annapolis summit, though he also used the opportunity to criticize Bush’s leadership on foreign policy issues.

Andrew Shapiro, Clinton’s senior defense and foreign policy adviser, said that “despite the fact that it took the Bush administration almost seven years to engage in serious diplomacy, Senator Clinton continues to express her hope that the Annapolis summit and its aftermath will lead to progress towards peace.”

So far, Republican candidates have tried to distance themselves from the renewed peace effort led by Bush. An Israeli source briefed on the phone conversations said that all Republican hopefuls were “positive and supportive” in their conversations with Olmert. Yet, they took a more skeptical approach in public.

Political analysts agree that the Middle East peace process is not expected to take center stage in the 2008 presidential elections, since it is not seen as a controversial issue.

“This kind of theoretical peace process — let’s talk for the sake of talking — I think this is one of those huge disconnects between foreign policy elites and ordinary people,” said Max Boot, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

For now, Bush is pushing ahead in an effort to reach some settlement before the end of 2008. He will visit Israel early next month to promote the peace process and strengthen Israeli and Palestinian leaders as they move forward on final-status issues. This will be Bush’s first visit to Israel as president; he visited once when he was governor of Texas.

The Annapolis summit and renewed effort by the administration to get the peace process on track have effectively disarmed Democrats, who in 2004 criticized Bush for his lack of involvement in the region. For Republicans, the mixed legacy of the Bush administration on foreign policy issues is leading most of them to detach themselves altogether from the current attempts to bring peace to the region.

“We might see some talk of it when the candidates reach states like Florida, in which the Jewish vote counts,” said Nathan Diament, Washington representative of the Orthodox Union, “but in the early states, this is not an issue.”

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