Reporter’s notebook: Olmert’s vim

President Bush mingles with foreign leaders following his toast at the State Department on November 26, 2007. (Chris Greenberg/White House)

President Bush mingles with foreign leaders following his toast at the State Department on November 26, 2007. (Chris Greenberg/White House)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was worn out by the process leading up to this week’s Annapolis conference, he didn’t show it in his meeting with Israeli reporters on Monday.

Some questions especially drew out his vim. Yes, he acknowledged, the bar was set low for Annapolis, but what was more important was the process it launched. He planned on continuing his meetings every two weeks with Abbas, he said.

“I never thought this was going to be a fun summer camp that would be over quickly. We are not naïve,” he said.

“We want to move forward,” and here he started banging the conference room table on the top floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, overlooking Washington’s tiny harbor.

“We do not want the status quo.” (Bang.) “We want to change the status quo” (Bang) “and ensure that the direction of change will be in line with Israel’s existential interests” (bang) “and that is what we are doing.”

A question that especially vexed him came from JTA: What did he think of those U.S. Jewish organizations that argue that Israel does not by itself have a mandate to negotiate Jerusalem’s future?

“Does any Jewish organization have a right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not?” he asked. “This question was decided a long time ago. The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel.”

Olmert emphasized that Jerusalem was not on the immediate agenda, but the edge in his words drew an equally sharp response from the Orthodox Union, one of the mainstream groups that has in recent days pronounced on the indivisibility of Jerusalem.

“In vigorously advocating for the unity of Jerusalem in the weeks leading up to the Annapolis conference, the Orthodox Union has not sought to ‘confer upon’ or dictate to the Israeli government what it has the legal right to negotiate about with Palestinian or other Arab leaders,” it said in a statement. “We have, however, sought to express our heartfelt and strong view that all Jews around the globe have a stake in the holy city of Jerusalem, and that to cede portions of the city which has been the spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for millennia is a step the government of Israel ought not take.”

And they threw Olmert’s words back at him, quoting his speech to the O.U.’s biennial convention in Jerusalem a year ago, when he stated: “It is totally inconceivable to me that when we will need you, you will stand firmly behind us 100 percent; but then when it comes to issues which may define…also the quality of your life in your communities, [we] would say, this is our issues, you are not part of it.”

Olmert appeared most vexed when he insisted he was not vexed by the refusal of the Saudi lead delegate, Prince Saud al-Faisal, to shake hands with him.

“I represent a great history and a glorious people and I don’t concede any of this history to someone who does not want to shake my hand,” he said. “Do you have to make an effort to shake someone’s hand who you know doesn’t want to shake yours? It is not personal whether or not I shake his hand or he mine. I represent Israel and if someone isn’t ready to shake Israel’s hand, I won’t extend mine. But I am happy that he is here.”
–––-
Was the meal at the State Department Monday night kosher? At press time, we don’t know, but the likelihood was yes, given the presence not only of Israelis but of the many devout Muslims from Arab and Muslim nations who accept kashrut as a substitute for halal.

But certainly it was for teetotalers and for Muslims who abjure alcohol: When President Bush
raised his glass of water in a toast, Olmert and Abbas and the rest of the room was ready – with iced tea.

Seating assignments were definitely mix and match, with Israelis scattered among Arab and European delegations, and Abed Rabbo chatting across the table with Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser who is considered an avatar of pro-Israelism in the Bush administration.

Dress, however, was uniformly Western; no one stood out in native dress.

NEXT STORY