Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert raised eyebrows this week when he praised America’s war in Iraq as a “great operation” that brought stability to the Middle East.
Olmert made his remarks Monday during a White House press conference with President Bush, before heading to Los Angeles to speak at a major gathering of thousands of Jewish communal activists.
“We are very much impressed and encouraged by the stability which the great operation of America in Iraq brought to the Middle East,” Olmert said as he sat next to Bush in the Oval Office.
The comments surprised some Democrats, and angered a few others.
Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, argued that Olmert’s remarks reflect a misreading of American politics. “There are not many people in the Jewish community that share the feeling that the Iraq War led to stability,” Susskind said.
The issue was not raised in Olmert’s 10-minute-long meeting with Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, or in his longer sit-down with the Senate leadership. Yet on the sidelines of a meeting with a group of Jewish lawmakers from both houses, Olmert was asked if he really meant that the Iraq War promoted stability in the region. He replied, “I really believe that.”
Israeli officials stressed that the remarks reflect Jerusalem’s concern over the future of the Gulf region after the United States pulls out of Iraq, and the realization that a new American policy toward Iraq might lead to a weakening of the international front against Syria and Iran.
One of Bush’s most dependable international allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, called this week for engagement with Damascus and Tehran in an effort to stabilize Iraq and the Middle East. And the bipartisan commission co-chaired by former Republican secretary of state James Baker and former Democratic lawmaker Lee Hamilton is expected to recommend a similar approach.
Olmert left the White House on Monday “very, very, very pleased,” as he described it, with the understandings that he and Bush reached on the Iranian nuclear threat. Both leaders stressed that the only way to deal with Iran is by international pressure and isolation, but the administration still expects Israel to do its share in improving the regional environment to facilitate such pressure.
A senior Israeli official said this week that though the opposition to engaging with Damascus “is not an ideology,” Israel doubts that talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be fruitful. According to the Bush administration’s view, Assad wants not only the Golan Heights but also stronger control over Lebanon. So, the Bush administration official argued, “there really isn’t a reward big enough to give Assad.”
Though Bush made it clear in his meeting with Olmert on Monday that he is not interested in engaging with Iran before it gives up its nuclear ambitions, Israeli officials still believe that the United States might change course regarding Syria, if the Baker-Hamilton report suggests it is a needed step in order to stabilize Iraq.
As part of the effort to line up Arab states against Tehran’s nuclear program, Israel is coming under increased pressure from America to achieve progress in talks with the Palestinians.
In a meeting last week, the Forward has learned, a senior Bush administration official told Israeli visitors that in order to form a strong coalition against Iran, movement must take place on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
The main goal of the administration now is to get American-aligned Arab states — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries — to join forces in isolating Ahmadinejad’s regime. According to sources, the senior American official said that what these countries — referred to in Washington lingo as “the Arab Quartet” — want to see is America making good on its promise to realize the vision of an independent Palestinian state. Where the Bush administration and the Arab Quartet countries differ is over the definition of success: The White House is promising effort; the Arabs want results.
In the keynote speech Tuesday in Los Angeles at the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities, Olmert echoed the call for moderate Arab nations to join the coalition against Iran. “This coalition must struggle against the dangers of radical Islam that manipulate the very source of Islam itself,” Olmert said. “We saw this coalition forming toward the end of the fighting in Lebanon. It is crucial for this coalition to be nurtured.”
Aides to Olmert were told by the administration that Israel should come up with practical steps that can translate into changes on the ground within six months. The administration wants to see Israel implement the plan put forth by Keith Dayton, an American general, to open the Gaza border crossings and improve movement, and to see Jerusalem engage with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
Dovish Jewish groups, including Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, expressed disappointment over the outcome of the Bush-Olmert meeting, criticizing the two leaders for not putting forth any meaningful diplomatic initiatives.
The Bush administration does not expect Israel to negotiate with a new unity Palestinian government depending on its association with Hamas. “We need a government that Israel can live with and that the United States and Europe can work with,” sources quoted the senior official as saying.
In his meeting with Bush, Olmert did not present a new plan and — defying the administration’s expectations — he did not show any sign of being willing to move ahead on the Palestinian front. Yet within Olmert’s Cabinet, other ideas are brewing.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is working, according to sources close to her, on a series of new steps to reinvigorate the peace process, provided that the new Palestinian government is acceptable to Jerusalem. Livni, who said more than once that “as a lawyer, I always prefer to write my own drafts than to put corrections into the other side’s draft,” fears that without an Israeli initiative, the Arab League peace plan might gain momentum as the only game in town.
In her speech at the General Assembly, Livni signaled her new ideas, conveying the message that the Israeli public is ready for a historic compromise. “Israel has made its choice,” Livni told the Jewish activists in the opening session, stating that there is a conflict between the Jewish right for all of the Land of Israel and the need to preserve Israel as a democratic state. “For both elements to live together, and not in contradiction, and to assure our security, we have to give up part of Eretz Yisrael.”
Livni’s message did not resonate well with the 3,000-strong crowd at the L.A. convention center. Only scattered applause was heard in the hall, in contrast to a much more enthusiastic response when the foreign minister spoke of the need to confront the Iranian threat.
The head of the Knesset opposition, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, drew strong applause as he argued that compromise would only lead to a greater threat to Israel. On three occasions he compared Iran to “Germany in 1938.” Netanyahu warned against pressing Israel to make concessions to embolden efforts to isolate Iran. “It is not that the Palestinian conflict affects Iran — it is the other way round,” Netanyahu said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz 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.