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Ehud Olmert’s Moment

5 minute read
Joe Klein

Political popularity is usually relative. Even the most unloved politicians have a hard core of supporters who will back them no matter what. But in Israel these days, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is testing the limits of the possible: in a recent poll by a local television station, he had a favorable rating of 3%. Given the poll’s margin of error, it was possible Olmert had no support beyond his extended family. The Prime Minister responded to this dismaying turn of events–caused by Israel’s less than triumphant war against Hizballah last summer, plus a gaudy array of scandals among his Cabinet ministers, plus the fact that he wasn’t very popular to begin with–in a fairly straightforward fashion. “I know I’m unpopular,” he told the nation mournfully in a recent speech.

Olmert did not crawl out from under his desk when he met recently with TIME’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Tim McGirk, and me at the Prime Minister’s residence. He seemed charming and almost confident. And why not? He was suddenly a popular fellow in the diplomatic world. Not only was he being courted by Condoleezza Rice in her belated effort to unstick the Middle East peace process, but also the Saudi Arabians–the implacable Alpha Arabs–were again holding out the possibility of diplomatic recognition in return for a settlement with the Palestinians (on terms Israel could never accept, but it was a start). So I asked the Prime Minister if he might leverage his utter unpopularity into something positive with a dramatic grand gesture–after all, what did he have to lose? Olmert was skeptical: “Even if [I] have something in mind that might be headlined as dramatic, it will be labeled as spin,” he said. But later, when I asked him about the Saudi initiative, he made a creaky effort to gin up a headline: “If I had an opportunity to sit down with King Abdullah, which I have not, he would be very surprised by what I had to say.”

And Olmert was right: it sounded like spin. The implication, of course, was that Abdullah would be pleasantly surprised. But it was an implication impeded by an impossible precondition: that somehow the Saudis would first be able to get the Hamas-led Palestinian government to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel. “It’s not going to happen,” a member of Olmert’s Cabinet told me. “Hamas is getting money and training from Iran. Its militant wing, where the real power lies, is based in Damascus. The Saudis have no influence over them.” And the Israelis will have no truck with Hamas. Indeed, earlier in our interview, Olmert went out of his way to call Ismail Haniya–the Hamas leader generally regarded as one of the least irresponsible–a “terrorist.”

So, why all the diplomatic fluttering about? What’s going on? Part of it is the Bush Administration’s desperate desire to wring good news from the mess it has caused in the region. But there is also a new twist on a familiar Middle Eastern dance: the collision between a grand geostrategic scheme and implacable tribal realities. The novelty is that the grand scheme has been proposed by the Saudis, not imposed by outsiders, and it is appealing to the Administration: it holds the prospect of an alliance of moderate Arab states, and Israel, against the growing influence of Iran. “The world is eager for this process,” another member of Olmert’s Cabinet told me. “But we have moved with the Palestinians from a resolvable political process to an unresolvable religious conflict,” a reference to Hamas’ refusal, on Islamic grounds, to acknowledge the possibility of a Jewish state. If the Prime Minister won’t say it publicly, his Cabinet is saying it privately: The Saudi path is a dead end.

There is another grand gesture open to Olmert, but it dare not speak its name–mostly because the U.S. doesn’t want it to happen. Various Israelis have been quietly talking about opening peace talks with Syria–which actually does have some power over the Palestinian extremists, since it allows the militant wing of Hamas to be based in Damascus. The deal seems obvious: Syria gets back the Golan Heights. Israel gets recognized. Hamas gets the boot. Two years ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad told me he wanted to reopen talks with the Israelis. When I asked Olmert about Assad, he didn’t say no–but he wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as he was about the Saudis. According to Israeli sources, both Rice and National Security Adviser Steve Hadley have discouraged the Syrian path in recent meetings with Israeli officials. “It’s amazing that we’re blocking this track just because we want to isolate the Syrians,” a former U.S. diplomat told me. “This could be the wedge that separates the Syrians from Iran.” Or it could be another dead end. Then again, stranger things have happened to travelers as unlikely as Ehud Olmert on the road to Damascus.

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