WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will work in coming weeks to boost the standing of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while trying to avoid the appearance of meddling in Israel’s upcoming elections, according to Israeli envoys and former American diplomats, American Jewish communal leaders and other Middle East experts.
Initial signals from top officials in the Bush administration suggest that the White House will attempt to forge a strong relationship with Olmert, Prime Minister Sharon’s most trusted political ally in recent years, and work to ensure stability and calm along Israel’s borders. Bush administration officials have contacted Olmert and other senior Israeli officials several times in recent days; in turn, Olmert and other Israeli officials have assured their interlocutors from the United States that the Olmert-led government will continue on the path that Sharon charted.
Sharon, who is not expected to return to politics following the severe stroke that he suffered last week, coordinated closely with the White House when planning and implementing Israel’s pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank last summer. Supporting the pullout became an important element of America’s Israeli-Palestinian policy during much of the past two years.
Olmert, who is favored to lead Sharon’s newly formed Kadima party in the upcoming March 28 elections, was a major supporter of the plan and has spoken about the need for Israel to withdraw from parts of the West Bank. In sharp contrast, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu ended up opposing the Gaza pullout and has come out against further unilateral withdrawals.
“It’s very simple: The administration doesn’t want trouble. It fears that with Netanyahu in power it will get confrontation and trouble. Less so with Olmert,” said Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank.
“That is why you’ll see a very forgiving American policy toward Olmert, even if he reacts harshly to Palestinian violence,” Wurmser said. “If terrorism runs amok in the three months leading to the Knesset elections, the administration knows that it may get Netanyahu as prime minister rather than Olmert. That is not the continuity to Sharon that America is seeking.”
The administration sees Olmert as the candidate most likely to push forward with Sharon’s vision, many observers said. “The administration assumes that Israel will continue, under Olmert and his partners, with policies of the Sharon government,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Therefore, he added, the administration will reach out to people like Olmert and other members of Kadima.
Jewish communal leaders are telling the Bush administration that the most important thing it can do at this point is to reduce external challenges to Israel’s current leadership.
“Right now, the U.S. has to do one thing and that is to see to it that what happens on the Palestinian side doesn’t undermine the ability of any Israeli government to pursue a policy” that Sharon charted, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Beyond that, “the United States should stay out” of Israeli politics, Hoenlein said, expressing a view shared by most Jewish communal leaders, even by doves, such as Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Israel is now in an election campaign, and the worst thing that you can do is interfere in an election campaign,” Yoffie said, adding, “On balance, the Americans ought to stay out of this because anything that they do is likely to backfire. An endorsement of Olmert is not necessarily helpful for Olmert. Israeli voters would be suspicious and are likely to be resentful.”
But Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who supports American efforts to help produce a two-state solution, said that there are ways for the White House to “show its support for Olmert without overtly interfering.”
“The Bush administration should and will make clear that it would be easier to work with Olmert than with Netanyahu,” said Frank, who was on his way to Israel this week for a gathering of Jewish lawmakers from around the world.
Experts say that whoever emerges as the next prime minister — Olmert, Netanyahu or Labor Party leader Amir Peretz — the White House will face the challenge of tackling some of the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without an Israeli leader of Sharon’s stature. Further complicating matters is that Sharon was not clear about his own plan for the West Bank.
“Sharon’s legacy is very clear in terms of not accepting the status quo, but it’s very fuzzy in terms of its final destination,” said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert with the United States Institute of Peace, a federally funded Washington think tank. One could make an argument, Lasensky said, “that it would be advantageous for the U.S. to step into that space and try to point Israel in the direction that we think would be the destination of a settlement.”
Both in Jerusalem and in Washington, there is a high degree of skepticism about the ability of the next prime minister to deliver like Sharon.
“There is a sense that I pick up here in Israel, and I know is true in the States as well, that maybe the next prime minister will not have the same kind of gravitas that Sharon has,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat who also was in Israel for the gathering of Jewish lawmakers and who met Tuesday with Olmert. “We’ll just have to see how things work out. There is no doubt that the relationship between Sharon and the Bush administration was a good marriage.”