How Bush and Olmert Could Help Each Other

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/11/06):

Today two bruised, weakened and defensive politicians, George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert, will sit down together at the White House for the first time in six months. Whether the tide of extremism now roaring across the Middle East — from the Gaza Strip to Baghdad — can be turned back could depend on whether they find a way to buck each other up.

The last time the Israeli prime minister was in Washington it looked like the two allies still commanded the regional agenda. Bush was overseeing the formation of Iraq’s first permanent democratic government; Olmert was preparing a bold plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Both men emerged from the Oval Office radiating confidence that Iran would not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.

Today Bush and Olmert will have to face the reality that Iran is winning — not just in preserving its nuclear program but in a broader contest over the direction of the Middle East. Olmert’s «disengagement» plan is dead, at least for now; so is Bush’s hope that an Iraqi coalition government could stabilize the country. Meanwhile, Iran and its ally Syria are everywhere on the offensive. They are on the verge of reversing Lebanon’s popular Cedar Revolution and handing political control over the country to the Hezbollah movement. They are blocking attempts by Palestinian moderates to form a new government in Gaza that could rebuild relations with Israel and the West. Their allies are smuggling more weapons, building more bunkers and preparing for the next round of what they call «resistance» — a permanent war against Israel that they would use to transform the region.

In the face of this onslaught, Bush and Olmert have had little to offer. Both are in deep domestic political trouble. The vaunted military forces of both countries are badly bogged down. The two leaders could, if they let themselves, spend their time reproaching each other. Senior Israeli officials have been privately grumbling for some time that Bush’s diplomatic campaign to stop an Iranian bomb is going nowhere and that there appears to be no credible American Plan B. For their part, Bush administration officials have been frustrated by Olmert’s slowness to embrace even modest steps to defuse tensions with Palestinians, such as a U.S. plan to increase the flow of goods and people between Israel and Gaza.

The alternative is for Bush and Olmert to dust themselves off, put their heads together and do what comes naturally to both of them — that is, something bold. What’s needed is a game-changing initiative that would break the momentum of Iran and its allies, and energize demoralized Arab moderates — like Ariel Sharon’s 2003 proposal to withdraw from Gaza or Bush’s June 2002 endorsement of a Palestinian state.

What’s possible? From the American point of view, the obvious answer is a major Israeli effort to encourage the formation of a responsible Palestinian government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, has been negotiating with the militant Hamas movement for months about a «unity» coalition made up of technocrats. Israeli officials tend to dismiss the effort as doomed. But what if Olmert were to spell out an aggressive Israeli plan to work with such a government? The plan could start with restoring the Palestinian tax funds that Israel collects but has impounded, and move on quickly to the release of Palestinian prisoners and talks about a negotiated version of the West Bank withdrawal Olmert proposed.

Among some senior Israeli officials a different but even bolder idea is being quietly kicked around: the opening of a dialogue with Syria. The idea is to flip Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; to induce him to drop his alliance with Iran and join the moderate Sunni alliance that is quietly lining up against Tehran. The Bush administration is loath to talk to Assad, partly because previous efforts have failed and partly because of what he wants from the United States, which is acquiescence to renewed Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon.

Israel cares less about who rules Lebanon. And it has something Assad wants at least as much: the Golan Heights. The Syrian president has been saying for months that he is ready to open talks about a swap of the territory for peace, a deal that his father came within inches of closing 6 1/2 years ago. Until recently Israel had little incentive to make that bargain with Bashar Assad. But the rise of the Iranian threat in the past year has changed the calculus for at least some of Olmert’s advisers.

Imagine Ehud Olmert emerging from the White House to announce that Israel is prepared to explore peace with Syria. It might not turn the ugly tide in the Middle East. But it would, at least, get Israel and the United States back in the fight.