JERUSALEM (Nov. 12)
The drubbing the Republican Party took in midterm congressional elections has dampened expectations for the upcoming summit meeting between Ehud Olmert and President Bush. The Israeli prime minister set off Sunday for a White House visit Monday at which he’s expected to take a quiet reading of U.S. plans in the wake of last week’s elections.
While the Jerusalem-Washington alliance remains strong, few believe Bush’s leverage in the Middle East will be as powerful following his party’s electoral debacle.
That means delicate diplomacy is called for from Olmert, who has found his own popularity at home sapped by the Lebanon war, a flare-up of fighting in the Gaza Strip and corruption allegations.
“It’s the right time to exchange views with the president on what is expected in the coming two years,” Olmert told reporters, referring to Bush’s remaining time in office. “The main issues will be the situation in the Middle East and the matter of Iran.”
With Bush having been rebuked at the ballot box over his Iraq policy, some analysts anticipate that the U.S. president will redirect his efforts toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With the limitations of Israeli unilateralism — in the form of last year’s Gaza withdrawal and the similar West Bank redeployment envisaged by Olmert — on display, many believe the United States will demand renewed political engagement.
Israeli media quoted U.S. officials as saying that, as he usually does, Bush would ask Olmert to take steps to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate from the Fatah Party, against his rivals from Hamas, the terrorist group that governs the Palestinian Authority.
Such steps could include releasing Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture or allowing arms to reach security forces loyal to Abbas.
Olmert, for his part, has been at pains to demonstate a willingness to talk peace.
“Under no circumstances am I going to withdraw from the need to engage in a serious dialogue with the Palestinians, toward the implementation of the vision which I share with President Bush. The Palestinian issue is on the agenda,” he told Newsweek in an interview published over the weekend. “There is no way we can ignore it or that we would want to ignore it. We have to find the best partner to do it. A lot depends on the Palestinian leadership.”
Hamas, which swept elections in January and controls the P.A. legislature and Cabinet, has refused to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism, prompting Western donor nations to impose an embargo on aid. Instead, donor nations have stepped up aid to nongovernmental organizations serving the Palestinians, bypassing Hamas.
Abbas’ proposed solution is to bring his formerly dominant Fatah faction into a unity government with Hamas. He said on Saturday that such a coalition could be in place by the end of the month.
There has also been talk of mollifying the diplomatic “Quartet” leading the peace process — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — by replacing Hamas Cabinet members with nonpolitical “technocrats.”
Israel has cautiously welcomed these efforts, though it has cast doubt on the chances of Hamas changing its stripes.
“If Hamas will formally accept Israel’s right to exist, end all terror against Israel, and recognize” prior agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, “then I’ll be ready to sit with such a government, even if it includes Hamas representatives,” Olmert said.
He was more definitive about the threat posed to Israel by Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has endorsed U.S.-led efforts to curb Tehran’s atomic ambitions through the threat of sanctions, but has refused to rule out military action as a last resort.
“I think that Bush is the last person on earth who needs to be reminded of what should be done in order to stop Iran. If there is one person I can trust, it’s him,” Olmert said.
He added, “If there can be a compromise that will stop Iran short of crossing the technological threshold that will lead them into nuclear capabilities, we will be for such a compromise. But I don’t believe that Iran will accept such a compromise unless they have good reason to fear the consequences of not reaching a compromise. In other words, Iran must start to fear.
“It is absolutely intolerable for Israel to accept the threat of a nuclear Iran,” Olmert said. “I prefer not to discuss the Israeli options. Israel has many options.”