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A Surreal Visit

A visit by Israel’s leader is traditionally a festive time for American Jews. Going back to the days of David Ben-Gurion, such visits are a chance for members of the community to turn out en masse, show their solidarity with the world’s only Jewish state and applaud its elected chief. Topping it off, the prime minister’s visit to the White House, with its obligatory declarations of eternal friendship between the two nations, lets ordinary Jews bask in the reflected glow, secure in the knowledge that their two loyalties truly are one. For all those reasons, we salute Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, welcome him to our home and wish him a safe return journey.

It can’t go unremarked, however, that this week’s encounter was not like past visits. It came at a time of extraordinary turmoil — for Olmert and President Bush, both wounded politicians on their home fronts, and for their nations in the global arena. Olmert has led Israel into a series of military blunders in the past half-year that have left his country weakened, its military humiliated and its citizenry despondent. As for Bush, his isolation on the world stage became complete last week when his own citizens decisively repudiated his leadership. Their chat in the Oval Office might as well have taken place over beers in a saloon.

What they hoped to accomplish by meeting was no secret. Olmert was aiming to boost his abysmal standing at home by appearing alongside the world’s most powerful man. Bush was looking to escape his political misery, if only for a moment, by standing in the Rose Garden with a popular foreign leader who would show him the respect befitting the leader of the Free World. What they got was the opposite. Standing together, each highlighted the other’s weakness.

For American Jews, this was one visit by an Israeli prime minister that drove home the distance between the two great Jewish communities, not their closeness. Watching the leader of the Jewish state shower affection on our president just days after Bush’s decisive “thumping” from his voters — and no group “thumped” him more decisively than Jewish voters — was painful to all but the most militant hawks among us.

Olmert’s bizarre Rose Garden comment about America’s “great operation” in Iraq and the “stability” it brought to the Middle East was merely the icing on the cake, moving the sorry event into the realm of the surreal.

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