Olmert’s Options

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Ehud Olmert, Israel’s rookie prime minister, will find himself greeted by an unnerving torpor, an almost robotic unresponsiveness, when he arrives in Washington next week for his first official visit. He’ll be wined and dined, glad-handed and pumped for information about his plans, hopes and fears. But the smiles will have a blankness behind them. He’ll ask his hosts for information about their own plans and get back empty words and frozen smiles. He’ll describe his ambitious plans and ask how the Bush administration can help him, and be greeted with an uncomfortable silence. He’s coming to meet with an administration that has been burned out.

The timing of the Washington meltdown couldn’t be worse for Olmert. He entered office less than five months ago by tragic accident, a stand-in for a stricken giant. He then won the office in his own right, but narrowly, leaving him in charge of a coalition government in which his own party holds a minority of seats. With that reduced mandate, he aims to carry out an agenda that’s one of the most ambitious in Israeli history, topped by a sweeping withdrawal from the West Bank. It’s a daring move and, to many Israelis, a risky one. To pull it off, he has got to show wary voters that he has the solid backing of Israel’s essential ally, America.

Olmert needs Washington’s diplomatic clout to secure international acceptance of the new borders he aims to draw. That’s no small task, since the withdrawal he envisions is far less than what even the most sympathetic Europeans expect. Israelis will want their sacrifice to bring enhanced international standing, greater security, increased trade and tourism. They’ll expect a reduction in Palestinian violence and in regional Arab hostility; that’s particularly pressing in light of the Hamas ascendancy. To deliver, Olmert needs an administration that’s able to take the lead in maintaining a firm international front against Hamas. He also needs some clear answers to the Iranian nuclear threat.

It’s a hefty wish list, and filling it will require all the muscle President Bush can muster. Some direct aid wouldn’t hurt, either; the withdrawal is expected to cost Israel between $10 billion and $25 billion, equivalent to some one-fourth to one-half of Jerusalem’s entire annual budget.

Faced with all this, the administration is signaling Israel to expect — well, not much at all, as Ori Nir reports on Page 1. Officially, the word is that this is just a first date. The two leaders supposedly need time to get used to each other before they get down to business. The truth is that the administration can’t promise much right now because it has nothing left to offer. After five and a half years of Bush, Washington is virtually bankrupt — diplomatically, politically and financially.

Politically, the administration is mired in a never-ending spiral of scandal and incompetence — Hurricane Katrina, illegal wiretapping, soaring fuel prices, the intelligence mess — that has alienated one support base after another and left it virtually paralyzed. Bush’s public approval ratings are as low as they have ever been, teetering below the 30% mark, with no upturn in sight. In the current mood, it’s unlikely that Bush can spare the energy or attention demanded by a major new Middle East initiative.

Overseas, the administration’s post-9/11 diplomatic and moral capital has been thoroughly squandered, turned to global ill will by the Iraq fiasco and by a host of lesser missteps from Guantanamo to Kyoto. America is a wounded superpower, scarcely able to shape attitudes even among its closest allies. In the areas where Israel most needs American leadership, facing down Iran and Hamas, Washington has taken a back seat to Europe. The odds that the administration will be able to mobilize European support for Olmert’s new borders seem hopelessly slim. It’s far more likely that Washington will end up following Europe’s lead.

As for the prospect of financial assistance, the less said, the better. Last year, the Katrina crisis forced Israel to withdraw its far more modest $3 billion special-aid request for the Gaza pullout. The red ink in Washington has only mounted since then.

It’s not clear whether Israel’s leaders understand the lameness of the horse they’ve been betting on, but they’re going to find out soon. When they do, they will have to make some fast decisions. Olmert is already under pressure from his right flank to scale back or drop his pullout plans and go after quick wins on the economic front. That advice will resonate with Olmert’s own hawkish instincts as the bleakness of his Washington option becomes clear.

But it’s the wrong advice. His better option would be to listen to the advice of his defense minister, Amir Peretz, and of the doves within his own party, and begin talking directly with the Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has made clear through every available channel that he’s eager — almost desperate — to open talks and reach a deal with Israel while he still has time. Israel should give him a chance to prove what he can do. At best, the two sides will reach some sort of deal that paves the way for better times. At worst, Israel will buy time and begin to build up some badly needed credit in Amman, Cairo, London and Berlin, to replace its worthless shares of Washington stock.

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