Even the closest friends of the Bush family don’t dare say anything about Iraq that approximates what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told President George W. Bush in their recent meeting at the White House. For having made even more guarded statements than Olmert’s declaration that the peoples of the Middle East should be grateful to America and to Bush for the operation in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a number of Republican congressmen were forced to retire. Robert Gates, designated to replace Rumsfeld, would certainly not sign off on Olmert’s observation that the war in Iraq made a “dramatic positive contribution to security and stability in the region. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush’s close ally, would probably not have replied like Olmert to a question about a possible withdrawal from Iraq that he doesn’t know that America is weighing a withdrawal. If Olmert thought he was simply being charitable to his host the president, he was wrong about what it is politically correct for an Israeli leader to say these days about the crisis in Iraq. An Israeli leader is supposed to know that the centers of power in America – the administration, Congress, the media and public opinion – are looking for any way possible to get out of Iraq, not to stay in that inferno. Even without statements like Olmert’s, many Americans suspect that it was Israel that dragged Bush into an adventure that continues to draw their blood and wealth with no end in sight. Rumsfeld’s resignation will reduce neoconservative influence on foreign policy during the coming two years. The Bush administration understands that the congressional elections were a referendum over Iraq in which the Republicans took a bad beating. It also stands to reason that when Bush met with the Iraq Study Group, and when he replaced Rumsfeld with Gates, he knew that the group’s co-chairman, former Secretary of state James Baker and Gates do not belong to the school of thought that believes that when force fails the only solution is more force. Any beginning Middle East scholar is aware that Baker and Gates were among those who persuaded President George H.W. Bush after the first Gulf war that expanding the coalition of moderate states was the best way to solidify the US position in the region. Now there are growing signs in Washington that after 15 years the winds of Madrid are again blowing, and the reality of the past three years will not prevail in the coming two years. Naturally, the Democrats, who were always more involved in the peace process, will not stand in the way. While opinions are split in Washington regarding Syrian President Bashar Assad’s readiness to follow in his father’s footsteps toward full peace with Israel, it is widely agreed that a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can serve American interests in the Gulf. In a speech to the General Assembly of American Jewish communities in Los Angeles, Olmert addressed the central challenge confronting the US and its allies in the region: He called upon moderate Sunni leaders to form a coalition against Iran, Hezbollah and other religious fanatics who threatened peace in the region. He spoke of a Sunni alliance that would stand firm against Shiite forces and an alliance against the pro-Iranian actors seeking to take over Iraq shortly after the US withdraws. The key question is: What is Israel prepared to contribute to the formation of such a pragmatic regional coalition? What is Olmert ready to do to stop Sunni Islamists who are multiplying in areas under Israeli occupation? The strengthening of Hamas on the ruins of the peace process is of great concern to the regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They do not hide their concern that the first Muslim Brotherhood state that is emerging, in Gaza, will not be the last in the region. It is this fear that prompts President Hosni Mubarak and the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to send repeated peace initiatives to the Americans in the hope of resuscitating Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the other leaders of the pragmatic secular Palestinian camp. They desperately need an Israeli-Palestinian peace process success. It’s too bad that these initiatives, particularly the important Arab League peace plan of March 2002 that offers Arab normalization with Israel in return for a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders, again and again run into stone walls in Jerusalem. Here we encounter a double missed opportunity: first, a missed opportunity to lower the flames of the Palestinian conflict, but also perhaps the Syrian and Lebanese conflicts. The second missed opportunity concerns Israel’s strategic relationship with the United States. The Iranian threat to the region, coupled with the dead-end American dilemma in Iraq, place Israel in a unique position. For the first time the American superpower, Israel’s most important ally, needs its help. And this time, unlike toward the end of the Clinton administration in July 2000, the issue is not an American president angling for a Nobel peace prize. This time it is a question of America’s status in the Middle East and the world. The help the US needs is not controversial verbal support by Olmert for American policy since the problematic occupation of Iraq began. Rather, America needs courageous and smart practical support for a process that could produce a win-win-win situation – for Israel, for moderate forces in the region, and for Israel’s most important backer.
Akiva Eldar is a senior political commentator and columnist for Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.