Washington - Israeli officials and Democratic lawmakers are working to mend fences after the fallout between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi following Pelosi’s visit to Damascus. But Democrats are still angry about what they see as Olmert’s desperate attempts to align himself with President Bush even if it means wading into American political controversies.
The latest flap erupted two weeks ago, after Olmert’s office released a statement — based on partial reports from a press conference that Pelosi had held in Damascus — suggesting she had done a poor job of delivering an Israeli message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Israeli criticism of the speaker came as Bush administration officials were blasting the Democratic leader for visiting Syria.
Since then, Olmert is said to have apologized to Pelosi, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington has praised the speaker. But some Democrats are still upset at Olmert’s actions and attribute them to his weakened political standing at home.
“It’s all politics,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East. When asked what led Olmert to criticize Pelosi’s trip to Damascus, Ackerman said that the Israeli premier had “kissed President Bush’s ass.”
“All the criticism of Pelosi is a stupid, idiotic political bube moyse that the Republicans made up here in Washington,” Ackerman said, stressing that the entire debate had nothing to do with Israel but rather with American partisan politics.
“Bush is the only friend Olmert has left,” said a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. “Our impression is that Olmert does want a good relationship with the Democrats, but he feels that he needs to support the administration.”
Despite his harsh comments, Ackerman, who just returned from a visit to the Middle East in which he met with Olmert, said he did not sense any tension in the relations between the Israeli leadership and the House Democrats.
In a speech Tuesday at the convention of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Pelosi insisted that her bipartisan delegation “delivered the message” — that Israel is ready for peace talks if Syria ceases its support for terrorism — “as we were requested.”
Pelosi, and other members of the delegation, said that in their meetings with leaders of the Syrian regime, they also stressed that Democrats join the Bush administration’s demand that Syria stop sponsoring terror and discontinue its meddling in the political life in Lebanon.
Rep. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and joined Pelosi on the trip, called Olmert upon returning to the United States and told the Israeli leader that the delegation had conveyed to the Syrian leader the exact message that it was asked by Olmert himself to pass on. Pelosi telephoned Dalia Itzik, speaker of the Knesset, to make the same point.
Israeli officials have been working to clear the air after it became obvious that Olmert’s remarks were seen as a slap in the face to the Democratic leadership.
Olmert called Pelosi last week and thanked her for her efforts in Syria. According to sources who were briefed on the conversation, Olmert was apologetic and made clear that he did not mean to accuse Pelosi or other members of the delegation of mishandling the diplomatic mission.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Sallai Meridor, issued a statement thanking Pelosi for her support of Israel and for raising the issue of captured Israeli soldiers in her meetings in Damascus. He described Pelosi’s efforts as “a unique manifestation of the strong bipartisanship friendship and alliance between our two countries.”
Another California Democrat in the delegation, Rep. Henry Waxman, said he does not see any long-lasting damage to the relations that Democrats have with Olmert, now that the disagreement over the Damascus trip has been settled.
“In my opinion, there is no problem between the Democrats and the Israeli government,” Waxman, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told the Forward. “There may be differences of opinion, but on the central issue of supporting Israel and its security, there is no difference.”
But some Democratic activists do not see the flap over Pelosi’s trip to Syria as an isolated incident.
A month before her trip, Olmert spoke at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and warned against a hasty withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. Olmert’s direct call on pro-Israel activists to support Bush’s Iraq policy came only hours after Vice President Dick Cheney warned the same forum of the dangers that setting a deadline for withdrawal would pose to Israel.
The backdrop for both speeches was the beginning of Democratic efforts in Congress to set a timetable for pulling American forces out of Iraq.
Olmert also praised Bush’s policy in Iraq after the two leaders had a White House meeting last November, days after the midterm elections in which the Democrats won control of Congress.
A Democratic staffer speculated that Olmert’s criticism of Pelosi came after “he got a call from the White House.” Lantos, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, also suggested that the White House was behind drawing Olmert’s attention to the activities of Pelosi’s delegation in Damascus.
Israeli sources, however, told the Forward that while Israel does not wish to enter the American political fray, it has genuine strategic concerns relating to a possible rushed withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and sees a need to express these concerns in a variety of forums.
Tense relations between Israeli leaders and American politicians from either side of the aisle are not new. During the Reagan administration, Israel worked with the Democratically controlled Congress against the White House in a failed attempt to stop a sale of surveillance aircrafts of the Airborne Warning and Control System to Saudi Arabia. When Bill Clinton was in the White House, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu forged relations with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in what was seen as an attempt to counter the administration’s peace efforts in the region.
In contrast, Ariel Sharon, Olmert’s political predecessor and patron, maintained an excellent working relationship with President Bush but strictly refrained from taking any position that could be seen as explicitly siding with the Republicans, and he never made any public remarks about the conduct of the war in Iraq.
While the debate over Iraq has apparently created some discord between Jerusalem and Democratic leaders in Congress, on legislative issues there is no daylight. Democrats were responsible for curbing attempts by the Bush administration to provide support to the Palestinian Authority, and they have forced the State Department to cut back an aid package intended to bolster the forces of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. They have also insisted that the administration not establish ties with the new Palestinian government.
In Democratic circles, Olmert’s low approval ratings — down to 3%, according to one poll — have become a source of comic relief and in some cases have taken the edge off the anger at the Israeli leaders. “Olmert and Bush put together have less than 50% support,” Ackerman said.
Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress and is also a member of Pelosi’s delegation to the Middle East, was a bit more colorful in making the same point during his appearance at this week’s convention of Reform activists. “There are,” Ellison said, “more people who believe that Elvis is alive than those who support Olmert.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman