Aluf Benn, Shmuel Rosner
Haaretz (Opinion)
October 22, 2007 - 1:28pm

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona began his remarks with a joke about erstwhile movie star Zsa Zsa Gabor. After her wedding to her fifth husband, the guests had gone home and the husband was perplexed. I know what I am supposed to do now, he said to her, but as husband No. 5, I'm not certain I can do it in an interesting way.

McCain had got up to speak before a Republican Jewish audience. He had been preceded by two other candidates for his party's presidential nomination: Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. How could he succeed in being interesting after them, and how could the subsequent speakers - former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, and actor and former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee - be of any interest after him? After all, the message they had chosen to convey was pretty much the same: On the issue of Iran, Israel can trust us, the Republican candidates. We will not let the Iranians arm themselves with nuclear weapons. The speakers accused their Democratic rivals of not being clear enough on this issue.

The next day President George W. Bush proved that it is possible to be interesting even coming after five other speakers: For the first time he threatened explicitly that there would be a third world war if Iran persists in its nuclear program. A day earlier his defense secretary, Robert Gates, warned the world in a more moderate way: When it comes to the Iranian regime, all options have to remain on the table, he said.

Thus, in one fell swoop, a week of increased interest in the Israeli-Palestinian track was cut off and the Iranian issue returned to center stage. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took off for Moscow to hear the updated position of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Tehran this week. Israel, like the United States, is trying to figure out where the Russians are heading on this issue. Alongside the disturbing signs and strange statements by Putin, there are also practical questions to be clarified. For example, will the Russians continue to prevent the transfer of fuel to the reactor in Bushar?

A few hours after his determined speech - "At the end of the day, we cannot allow the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons" - McCain hosted an old friend named Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, for a chat. Barak has a great many pals in the U.S. capital. McCain is one, and so is Secretary Gates. The acquaintanceship of the veteran defense people goes back many years.

Israelis and Americans have been tight-lipped about the details of the meeting between Barak and Gates, but were glad to announce cooperation on the development of a rocket-defense system. For several months Barak has been explaining that without an answer to the Qassams, there will be no further withdrawals in the West Bank. He believes that an initial anti-rocket system will be operational within two and a half years. The Americans will soon be busying themselves with calculating the funding necessary for development of such systems, and this is the right time for some extra, moderate pressure on the budget pedal. Israel wants as large a share as possible of the American budget earmarked for development, and its engineers believe that Israel also has something to offer.

Understanding Barak's schedule in Washington requires a key, if one is to be able to identify the reason for each of his meetings. "Defense against missiles" was the one that justified the precious time he devoted to Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii, a friend of Israel and its defense establishment.

Barak's doubts

Barak came to the American capital with the label "doubter" concerning the negotiations with the Palestinians already pinned firmly to his lapel. Most of the people he spoke to in the U.S. were more interested in other issues: Iran, Syria, his opinion about Iraq, but those who did check formed the impression that with respect to the Palestinians, Barak remains firm in his lack of enthusiasm. They are developing overly high expectations, he told them.

Barak said that he assumes that the Palestinians are taking into account two scenarios from which they could benefit: a conference that fulfills their expectations, or a failure, for which Israel is blamed. High-ranking Israeli sources tried cautiously to probe this week just how far U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intends to go at Annapolis. Will the president let her, for example, put on the table a bridging proposal of her own that will compel Israel to accept a dubious deal, or, alternately, to enter into open conflict with the administration?

Yesterday, Barak had a meeting with National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, who will come to the region next week accompanied by his deputy for Middle Eastern affairs, Elliott Abrams. The White House is considered more skeptical than Rice and her people about the chances of an agreement, and Barak almost certainly tried to fan Hadley's skepticism. However, the reality that appears to be emerging is that Hadley and Abrams are not coming to spoil Rice's party.

Abrams and Jim Jeffrey, another Hadley deputy, met this week with a number of members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who have been in Washington, and the message they transmitted was one of total support for Rice's moves. The MKs, who expected differences of opinion or at least hints of such gaps, did not find them. Abrams, who in the eyes of his critics is under constant suspicion of trying to neutralize Rice's political moves, repeated exactly the same messages they had heard the previous day from her deputy, Nick Burns. This will also happen next week in Jerusalem when he arrives with Hadley. Bush's speech on Wednesday, which expressed commitment to the idea of the conference, was aimed at emphasizing the fact that Rice has full backing.

Rice's marketing trip

Secretary Rice devoted her visit to the Middle East this week to aggressive marketing of her initiative. Her message was that it is very much worth Israel's while to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians while Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayad are still on the scene, and while the friendly Bush administration is still in power. She understands Israel's security concerns, but statesmanship is sometimes about making a choice between the bad and the awful, and if the current opportunity is missed, Israel will find itself facing the forces of radical Islam - and also a less friendly administration in America.

It is important, Rice preached to her Israeli interlocutors, that you not be conducting the same war as in 1967 and 1973. The problem today is far more complex and your conflict with the Palestinians has to be seen in terms of the regional and global battle of titans. The Palestinians are rapidly becoming more extreme. It is true that the public opinion polls are showing that most of them support a two-state solution, but this is not the case among the young people. You have to hurry up and act because the increasing Palestinian extremism will not stop at Hamas. If you miss out on Abbas, she said to the Israelis, you won't be facing only the local Hamas. And, in general, added the secretary of state, it's worth Israel's while to close a deal with the friendly Bush administration and not to wait for his successor, who by implication will be less empathetic.

At the beginning of the week the country's largest Orthodox Jewish organization, the Orthodox Union (OU), sent a worried letter to Prime Minister Olmert. Its members, skullcap-wearers and mostly people of the right, are not enchanted with Olmert's willingness to put Jerusalem on the negotiating table. The prime minister was courteous enough to reply with a denial. There are no negotiations on Jerusalem, he promised in his response. President Shimon Peres also made similar statements midweek during a visit to Safed. "There is no such thing as dividing Jerusalem," he said. "The only thing that the State of Israel needs is to ensure a Jewish majority in Jerusalem."

For anyone who is wondering about these political acrobatics, senior people in Jerusalem have offered a circuitous solution: There are no negotiations because the Palestinians can get only what we agree to give. In any case, Rice is insisting on advancing a comprehensive agreement that will touch upon all the "core issues"- Jerusalem and also the permanent borders and the refugees. She is strenuously opposed to postponement, or to focusing on taking small steps and strengthening the Palestinian economy. It is not going to work, she said. She reminded her interlocutors of how two years ago she achieved a "movement and accessibility agreement" regarding the border-crossing points to and from the Gaza Strip. It was never implemented because of your security worries, she said to the Israelis. There were terror attacks at those points and real alerts.

Her listeners formed the impression that she was not blaming Israel for the failure of the agreement, which mentioned an expansion of the transport of goods at Karni, and of convoys between Gaza and the West Bank. However, her lesson was that it is necessary to move forward in larger steps- a lesson that also accords well with Rice's political timetable, as she has only a year and a quarter left to complete a deal.

The dissident front
Four members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee ran around Washington this week from meeting to meeting, from bureaucrat to elected official. This was organized cacophony. On a number of matters they spoke with one voice, for example, about the importance of a rocket defense system, the one in which Barak is also interested. On others, they disagreed. For example, as to whether the peace process should be delayed until such a system is completed, as Barak believes, or in parallel to focus considerable effort on realizing the promise inherent in the political process- as only one of the four, Meretz chairman MK Yossi Beilin, believes. His colleagues in the delegation, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz and Kadima MKs Yoel Hasson and Avigdor Itzchaky, do not believe in Rice's move, either because of their political positions or because of their distrust of the prime minister. In a meeting with members of Congress they did not conceal their disagreement. That was not a disaster: In this way they presented a credible picture of the disagreements within the government of Israel.

Sharing Rice's opinion at the top of the Israeli power structure are Olmert, his deputy Minister Without Portfolio Haim Ramon and - with certain conditions - also Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Leiberman. Defense Minister Barak would prefer to postpone negotiations to the day after Abbas leaves; Foreign Minister Livni wants to talk only about the foundations of a Palestinian state and not about solutions to the core issues. Shas chairman Eli Yishai, the minister of industry, trade and labor, proposes confining the talks to economic measures, and has warned Rice about the unraveling of the coalition should the core issues, and above all Jerusalem, come up for consideration.

Rice maintained a calm, unexcited expression in face of threats of a political apocalypse. Nor did she take umbrage at Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who said the last time Israel listened to her advice, Hamas came to power. She came prepared to Israel, determined to convene the Annapolis conference, apparently in December.

Nevertheless, it appears that she erred in attributing too much weight to optimistic reports about the one-on-one talks between Olmert and Abbas, and did not correctly assess the extent to which their hands are tied by domestic political considerations. The moment the talks emerged from behind closed doors, the expected crisis came.

It used to be that you thought that you were the only ones fighting terror, she said to the Israelis she spoke to, but this has changed. I am busy all day long with security and the war on terror, exactly like you are. Terror, she noted, was the basis of the relationship between President Bush and former prime minister Sharon. The president's insistence that terror is terror, no matter where and why, has constituted a fundamental change in American policy since 2001, and it has been at the basis of everything that has happened since then.

Rice promised the worried Israelis that the Annapolis declaration will contain three provisions that are important to Israel. First of all, it will cite Bush's letter of April 14, 2004, to Sharon, which recognized the existence of "Israeli population centers" in the territories, and stated that the refugees would be able to return, but not to Israel. Rice took pride in having formulated that letter in her previous capacity as national security advisor, and noted that it was a valuable achievement for Israel. Second, the Annapolis declaration will cite the road map, which makes all progress toward a Palestinian state contingent on the curbing of terror. And third, it will reiterate Bush?s statement at the Aqaba summit in 2003, to the effect that Israel is a "Jewish state." That was her reply to the fear that the Jewish and democratic state is in danger.


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