Olmert Can Always Say ‘No’


If you believe the opinion polls — and there's no reason not to — George W. Bush doesn't have many fans. And last week, the dwindling number of Bush loyalists got a bit smaller.

For the majority of American Jews who are Democrats, nothing — not even Bush's first visit as president to Israel — was bound to win him much applause.

Despite the opposition to the Iraq war and bitterness that dates back to the 2000 election, the president has still been able to fall back on his reputation as the best friend Israel has had in the White House, a tag that was earned via steadfast support for the Jewish State during the worst of the second intifada and the 2005 fight against Hezbollah along the country's northern border.

But the Bush trip to Jerusalem last week did not result in general hosannas from the pro-Israel community. Indeed, for many of his most steadfast backers in this sector, the rhetoric coming out of the presidential party was nothing short of a disaster.

The Old Rulebook
The decision to press ahead with Israel-Palestinian peace talks after the Annapolis summit is exactly what Bush's opponents on the left have chided him for not doing the first seven years of his presidency. They have wanted him to embrace the peace process that former Bill Clinton embraced in his presidency and even blamed Bush for the absence of peace, even though the Palestinians are the ones to blame for choosing terror over peace.

Bush changed the course chosen by the Clinton administration by refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat. He proclaimed that the Palestinians would have to give up terror in order to get a state, and said that any peace deal would be based on the reality of Israeli settlements and not solely on the pre-1967 borders.

In 2002 and 2004, Bush had appeared to throw away the old rulebook of U.S. Middle East diplomacy, which "realists" who had dominated the State Department in his father's time had always championed. But in 2008, that rulebook, which emphasized pressure on Israel to make concessions in exchange for empty Arab promises, is back in place as Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have plunged head first into the diplomatic maelstrom.

Bush made it clear last week that he was prepared to apply "a little pressure" on Israel to get it to agree to a peace deal that few in the country believe is possible. Despite other comments that demonstrated his friendship for Israel, his goal of shepherding a Palestinian state into existence during his presidency seemed to be the priority. He even said that Israel was going to have to discuss the so-called Palestinian "right of return."

All this has left Americans — both Jewish and non-Jewish who liked Bush's former policies — stumped and saddened.

Some blame the influence of his father and elder Bush luminaries like former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker. Others point to the need to appease Arab public opinion for the sake of the war in Iraq. Still others point to the increased influence of Rice in the aftermath of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's departure in 2006.

That may all be true. Yet while both Americans and Israelis have attempted to parse the contradictions in Bush's policies and sought to find their authors inside the administration, the obvious answer to the decision to go ahead is right under their noses. Far from being Bush's helpless victim and subject to the awful "pressure" that Israel has always dreaded, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fully behind the current plan.

Olmert has been sending clear signals that he is ready to do a deal with the Palestinians, which replicates the wildly generous terms offered to Arafat by Ehud Barak at Taba. He has told Israelis that the world doesn't accept an undivided Jerusalem, and that they must learn to live with this. And he has made it clear that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is his peace partner, no matter what Fatah terrorists do.

No one but Olmert and his closest advisers know whether he really thinks that Abbas can sign a peace deal that accepts Israel as a Jewish state within any borders — or that he would survive if he did. It may be that domestic political considerations have led them to believe that pursuing a peace process, even a futile one, is his best bet to hang on to office, despite popularity ratings even lower than Bush. But while Bush is the senior partner in this alliance, Olmert is still the one in the driver's seat on this question. Anyone who thinks the prime minister is being dragged kicking and screaming to the table is dead wrong.

All of this leads us to the question that many refuse to contemplate: Could Olmert say "no" to Bush and Rice if he wanted to?

Despite Israel's dependence on the United States for military and diplomatic support, the answer is a resounding "yes."

Even as a lame duck with a secretary of state who is desperate for a diplomatic coup, there's nothing to indicate that Bush would implement this strategy if Olmert said it was dead on arrival.

Go to Sederot
If Olmert wanted to, he could have said that anyone in the president's delegation who wanted to know why even Israelis who oppose settlements have no intention of handing over more territory to the Palestinians need only take a visit to Sederot.

That Israeli town within the 1949 armistice lines remains under siege as Kassam missiles launched from "Hamasistan" in Gaza — territory Israel left in 2005 — rain down on its people every day. If Israel backs up to the 1967 borders the same scene could be played out in 2009 at Ben-Gurion airport.

Olmert could have stated last week that until incitement against Israel and Jews on Abbas' own P.A.-controlled broadcast media ceased, peace was impossible. Indeed, 15 years of post-Oslo Palestinian autonomy has resulted in a new generation of Palestinians raised on hatred.

In response to suggestions that Israel negotiate about the "right of return," Olmert could have pointed out that several hundred thousand Jews were expelled or forced to flee from Arab countries after 1948, and are just as deserving of recognition and compensation as Arabs who fled Israel.

But for good or for ill, Olmert has done none of this.

The premier would certainly face some heat from Washington if he just said "no." But it's just as certain that if he did that and called on Israel's many friends in both major parties in the United States to back him up, Bush would not have persisted.

Those disillusioned by Bush's flip-flop are right to criticize him. But anyone who thinks that Israel is being forced to go along is focusing on the wrong end of the partnership. What happens in the next year — whether it turns out to be peace, war or the more likely option of a continued stalemate — remains a fate that Israel's democratically elected government is choosing of its own free will.  


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