Ehud Olmert emerged from his first meeting as prime minister with President Bush sounding as if the conclave couldn’t have been more to his liking.
The extended face time with the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the cheers Olmert received when he addressed Congress are being put forward as a personal triumph for him as well as for his new government.
But even before the echoes of congressional cheers for Olmert’s thoughtful address had died down, his rival for American love and largess issued a statement that showed just how slender the prime minister’s margin for error in this game really is.
Two days after Olmert’s tete-
à-tete with Bush, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas proclaimed to the international press that he would call a referendum on a proposal for a Palestinian state that would recognize Israel, if the governing Hamas party failed to accept the plan within 10 days.
Abbas is a marginalized figure within his own government and among his own people. But despite this, all it took was for the Palestinian to say a few magic words and a great deal of the air went out of Olmert’s post-Washington summit balloon.
What Abbas did was endorse a so-called peace plan hatched by a committee of members of Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement currently serving lengthy terms in Israeli prisons for terrorist murders. But despite the fact that they could draft it at their leisure, all the prisoners did was adopt a similar “peace” plan floated by the Saudis in 2002.
The Saudi plan was a diplomatic hoax launched in order to counter all the bad press they were receiving in the months after 9/11. With the help of The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, who trumpeted the scheme as a scoop in his column, the Saudis managed to convince some Americans that a plan that called for Israel to pull back to the 1949 armistice lines, accept the Palestinian “right of return,” which would destroy it as a Jewish state, in exchange for de facto recognition, was a step toward peace rather than more war.
Israel rightly rejected the idea at the time and will, no doubt, do so again. But that didn’t stop the international press, as well as some American Jewish “peace” activists from touting it not only as a sign of Abbas’s moderation but as a real opening for peace that ought to trump Olmert’s unilateralism.
It isn’t clear that Abbas’s gambit will afford him more than a momentary tactical advantage against both Hamas and Olmert. But what it does illustrate is how precarious Olmert’s hold on international goodwill is.
After all, the price he had to pay for the warm reception he got at the White House was to agree to stop telling the world that Abbas was not a negotiating partner and had proved that he wasn’t interested in progress toward peace. But Abbas, despite his unwillingness to use any of the considerable force at his disposal to stop attacks against Israel, can still count on more support here than Olmert seems to understand.
Olmert is acting as if his plans will carry the day, no matter what else happens. Those of us who believe that any democratically elected leader of Israel is entitled to more than the benefit of the doubt hope he is right. But Israelis ought to care about the reason why, against all reason, Abbas is still sitting in the proverbial catbird seat when it comes to leverage in Washington.
First, despite George W. Bush’s obvious and genuine affection for the State of Israel and the much-vaunted power of the Israel “lobby,” Washington still has bigger fish to fry than Olmert’s ambitions for a relatively quick resolution to Israel’s problems in the territories.