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A Push from Bush

Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner; Ha'aretz , 26.05.06

WASHINGTON - U.S. President George W. Bush has always had a sense of humor, and over the years he has apparently developed a sense of history as well. This Tuesday he chose to host the visitors from Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his wife Aliza, in the sitting area on the Truman porch, in the residential wing of the White House. Harry Truman, who ended his presidential career with a very low approval rating that must remind Bush of his present situation in the surveys, was a stubborn president. He insisted on building the porch in spite of the opposition and the public uproar aroused by the damage to the architecture of the presidential residence, and the expenditure of public funds - just as he insisted on recognizing the State of Israel in spite of the strenuous opposition of his foreign policy experts.

This week, Bush surprised the pundits, the experts and the officials with his enthusiastic support for the prime minister's convergence plan. The professionals in the administration warned that a unilateral Israeli move in the territories - of the type that will lead to determining a border without asking the Palestinians - will anger the Europeans, enrage the Arabs and humiliate what is left of the Palestinian Authority. But Bush, as stubborn as Truman, as well as a great admirer of his, preferred to embrace his Israeli friends and to absorb possible criticism of his declarations.

Olmert came to Washington this week for two reasons. He wanted to strengthen his official image - which was damaged by the far from overwhelming victory of Kadima in the elections and by coalition problems - and to convince everyone, Americans as well as Israelis, that he is in fact the legitimate, authentic heir of Ariel Sharon. And he wanted a political achievement as well: to tempt Bush. On Truman's porch, he apparently succeeded in doing so. What American president would not want to boast of getting Israel out of the territories. Bush's father, as well as the president's predecessor, Bill Clinton, invested tremendous efforts in this task, but did not succeed in carrying it out. It is Bush Jr., considered the least talented of the three, who is coming closer to solving the problem than did his predecessors. During his term, Sharon restrained construction in the settlements and evacuated the Gaza Strip, and Olmert is planning to evacuate the West Bank settlers living beyond the separation fence. "What you have already done during your presidency to lay the foundations for a final status solution," said Olmert to the president, "seven presidents, since 1967, didn't do."

Olmert returned to Israel yesterday with a clear sense that Bush is going along with his convergence plan. For the prime minister, the most significant achievement of the visit was forming personal ties with the president. That is particularly important, in his opinion, just because Bush did accept his plan. Had he objected to it, the personal friendship would not have helped Olmert. But when you cooperate on a political move, the direct relationship between the leaders is of decisive importance.

Before the visit, both sides had created the impression that the U.S. administration is hesitant about the convergence plan and saw it as an unnecessary nuisance. The preliminary delegation sent by Olmert to Washington last week returned disappointed, and the prime minister even told his ministers that Iran would be the main subject of his talks with Bush. Iran was in fact important - but in the final analysis, the Palestinian issue was more so. In hindsight, it seems that lowering expectations had a dual purpose. Both to reinforce Olmert's achievement, and to extract a more supportive presidential declaration out of the Americans. One can imagine Yoram Turbowicz, Dov Weissglas, Shalom Turgeman and Israeli ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon trying to convince those in charge of Israeli affairs in the administration, David Welch and Elliot Abrams, that "Olmert cannot return home" with the first draft. The 14 drafts streamed to Turgeman's e-mail, each of them with higher praise for Olmert's ideas than the previous one: from "interesting" to "outstanding" and finally, a day before Olmert's departure, to "daring." In other words, courageous, but on the borderline of irresponsible. Remind you of anyone?

It's not Arik

On Tuesday evening, the Israeli reporters sat in Blair House, the presidential guest house, and waited for the meeting with Bush. Around the table a debate developed: Did Sharon customarily sit near the wall during these briefings, where three empty chairs waited for Olmert, or near the window. The majority decided: Sharon preferred the window. And then Olmert entered and with a confident step took up his place along the opposite wall. At that moment it was clear that Israel has a new prime minister.

The reporters who accompanied the prime minister on his trips abroad are his first source of feedback. Olmert knew he was being tested this time. That this cynical gang would examine him carefully, and would compare each step of his to their recent memories of the Sharon days. And that is exactly what happened. When Olmert and his wife climbed the stairs to the plane, a sigh was heard in the reporters' seats: It's not Arik. It doesn't seem real.

Olmert is aware of the problems of adjustment to the changes in leadership for those surrounding him, and perhaps in order to soften them, he warmly praised the staff he inherited from his predecessor. He said of Weissglas that Bush was eagerly awaiting his jokes, and of ambassador Ayalon that the president had praised his personality and his functioning. In Olmert's opinion, the embarrassing statements of his campaign advisers, which were exposed this week in a film by Anat Goren on Israel TV's Channel 10, stemmed from their inability to adjust easily to the situation created after the departure of Sharon. For almost five months Olmert has been running the country, it's hard to believe how time flies, and his new style is gradually taking shape.

The quiet revolution is also evident in the small details. Business class in the plane, where the prime minister and his entourage sit, was arranged differently. Sharon used to sit in the set of four seats, opposite the direction of the flight, surrounded by his close advisers: Dov Weissglas, Yisrael Maimon and his military secretary Yoav Galant. The closeness reflected the internal hierarchy in the Prime Minister's Office. Sharon had difficulty sleeping during flights, and usually spent the time reading books. Olmert and Aliza took their places in the same set of four seats, leaving the two opposite seats empty. They told the reporters that this way they could invite a different assistant to join them each time. The prime minister took off his suit and perused the press coverage, wearing a yellow Beitar Jerusalem T-shirt. Afterwards he went with Aliza to the sleeping compartment, which was specially constructed.

Aliza Olmert was the surprise of the visit. The well publicized visit she made to American welfare organizations, and her participation in the leaders' private talks, reflected a new type of "First Lady," which hasn't been seen in Israel for many years. She is an opinionated woman, with a great deal of self-confidence, who is not afraid of exposure and plans to work as a lobbyist to promote the goals close to her heart - such as the rights of very young children "who have been suffering from prolonged neglect in Israel," and art that deals with violence. After the years of the widower Sharon, who relied on his two sons, Israel once again has a couple at the top.

Enjoys boasting

But the most significant difference between Olmert and his predecessor is evident in his command of English. Sharon never felt confident outside the borders of Hebrew, and in his 13 meetings with Bush, he relied on Weissglas, with his impressive way with words and his endless supply of jokes. When he was shown political documents in English, he used to say: "I'm a country boy, and you are men of the world. Explain to me slowly." Olmert, to whom the outside world is not foreign, enjoys boasting of his ability to communicate with the Americans in their language. He can spend six hours with Bush, including 100 minutes in private conversation on the porch, without fear of not understanding or of stammering.

But of course there are also disadvantages to this self-confidence. Olmert chose the term "realignment" as the official translation of the name of his plan. "I think it means hitkansut (the Hebrew word for the plan). Sometimes the same word in Hebrew has several meanings in English, and I heard of a few, and of them the term that seemed to me most representative is 'realignment,' to the best of my knowledge of English," he explained. A foolish choice. "Realignment," said a senior American reporter, "is something that you do to your car tires" - not the catchy name of a daring political plan. There was consensus among Olmert's American listeners: "Consolidation" is a much more appropriate word for those who are afraid to use the clear term: "withdrawal from the territories." Perhaps that was why the members of Congress reacted with surprising silence to the paragraphs that described Olmert's plan. They simply did not understand what is so daring about changing a tire.

For about $20, you can buy here in Washington, in hard cover, the useful book by John Kaminsky, "Citizen Jefferson: The Wit and Wisdom of an American Sage." Olmert, in his speech to Congress, chose to quote a later president, Abraham Lincoln, saying that he is a success story because he had a friend who believed in him and he did not have the heart to let him down. But had he perused Kaminsky's book, he might have been interested in the words of America's third president to the effect that it is of critical importance to America that high-ranking visitors meet with the best of its citizens - those who can give a good impression of it. Bush - who is not considered the best of citizens by all his subjects - was careful to fulfill at least the second part of Jefferson's vision, and the positive impression that he left on his guest will not be quickly erased.

Olmert felt that the image Bush has acquired does him an injustice. That he is an intelligent, sharp man, who is quick to catch on and well versed in the details. The intimate meeting on the porch, part of which was conducted as a man-to-man talk, and during part of which Aliza Olmert participated as well (Laura Bush was out of town), was devoted mainly to bonding. They spoke about their families, their children, sports and politics. The prime minister told the president about the recent elections in Israel, and heard several political diagnoses from him host. They talked, said Olmert afterwards, like two old acquaintances. "I left very satisfied with the president's reactions," he summed up. His hosts, as far as one could tell, were also satisfied with him. What did they want, after all? Time to get organized and to convince the world that they are not abandoning the Palestinians, and a convincing show of an attempt at dialogue with PA Chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). The prime minister generously supplied them with both. "We will spare no effort" at negotiations, he promised - and also set a late, more than reasonable, date for completing the plan: three to four years.

Pathetic demonstration

On Tuesday, not far from Capitol Hill, 100 Jews from the political right stood and demonstrated against the prime minister. It was a pathetic, disappointing gathering, which reflected the situation of opponents of convergence. Its location testified to that as well: Either it was not at the right time - Olmert arrived at Capitol Hill only a day later - or it was not in the right place - at the time Olmert was in the White House. The Jewish organizations refused to support it. Those present were particularly disappointed by the refusal of the Union of Orthodox Congregations to help them. It's not the right time, they were told. In reply they called on activists to contact the heads of the organization and to protest.

Olmert invited the Jewish leadership to his speech in Congress, and met with them afterwards as well. Most of them understand that they will learn the details of his plans gradually. They do not necessarily feel comfortable with it, but nevertheless, their support is guaranteed. They understand this is a speeding truck that they do not have the power to stop.

Olmert met with Jewish legislators as well: President Bush sat with the president of China for one hour, and with me he sat for six hours, he bragged to them. And no, he does not think it's personal, but "because of the relations between Israel and the United States." And he also said: "It's really not bad to be in a friendly parliament" - in a kind of sudden outburst of Sharon-like humor. Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman cheered him from the second row at the session of Congress, but another Lieberman is awaiting him at home. The one who chose to remain outside the convergence coalition.

The return home, the landing, is a complicated task for any prime minister. Three days of heady Washington air would turn the head of any leader. And it's true that he is returning with an achievement he can boast about. Understandings with the president are no small matter. But in the context of these understandings, Olmert will have to withstand a difficult test of delaying satisfaction. "We understand that Olmert's term is not unlimited," said an American official several days ago - in other words, the turn of the plan will have to arrive before the term ends. Nevertheless, keeping together a shaky coalition that was constructed around this plan will be a challenge that will be tested daily. Bush knows it, Olmert knows it - but neither of them knows, nor can they know, when a party like Shas will decide to rock the boat, when the screws that hold Kadima together will loosen, and when the conditions will ripen for the major - anticipated - battle between Olmert and Labor Party chair Amir Peretz, who wants to succeed him.

Nor is Bush's political clock necessarily under his control. In any case, Olmert's visit did not make the headlines in America. Other issues concern the public and the administration - and the president will not be free at any given moment to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In six months there will be Congressional elections, in which his party may lose, and already now the results of the erosion of his power are evident: This week, the House of Representatives passed a law against Hamas against Bush's wishes, and he is now busy mainly with two issues - Iraq and illegal immigration. Bush wants to solve the second problem by building a fence along the border with Mexico. "I heard that your fence has succeeded in preventing terror," he said to Olmert, "and we are also considering building a fence in Texas." Another proof of the fact that it's a small world.