Benn and Ronsner: What Else can be Asked of Bush?

By Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner

A well-worn joke about former secretary of state Colin Powell’s mission to Ramallah and Jerusalem in 2002 that began with an attempt to achieve a cease-fire and ended in a loud squabble with Yasser Arafat was resuscitated this week in a corridor conversation between a visiting Israeli and a Washingtonian friend. "Powell’s mission was somewhat of a success. He came back alive," quoted the visitor. The context: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the Middle East this week. She too came back alive, "If you can call that alive," commented the Israeli visitor.

Rice went to the Middle East with no expectations and returned with no achievements. The Mecca agreement has a golden share in this unsurprising failure. Leaked citations from her conversation with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) reveal that it was difficult and bitter. "You are retreating on previous commitments," Rice said to him angrily. Abu Mazen replied that his first priority was to prevent a Palestinian civil war, and considered canceling the summit in protest, at least according to Palestinian sources.

As far as Rice’s failure goes, a place of honor is also reserved for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In recent months Olmert has been criticized from every direction and in every possible area. But one thing cannot be taken from him: There is no one more adept at power games and sparring with political rivals than he is. This week he demonstrated this again, in the moves that preceded the tripartite summit in Jerusalem. Rice did not manage to do much to stop him.

Olmert cannot be accused of backpedaling. After all, h e was never enthusiastic about the initiatives of the secretary of state and her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to weave a "political horizon" for the Palestinians and begin to fashion a future Palestinian state. Perhaps he feared a loss of control over the process, perhaps he worried about the political price of diplomacy, perhaps he realized that a success would be credited to Livni and a failure to him.

In her talks in Israel, Rice took an interest in Olmert and his government’s chances of survival. She did not divulge her intentions, and one of her interlocutors wondered whether she wants Olmert to remain in his position as a leader acceptable to Washington, or would prefer him to fall. "She would prefer Livni as prime minister," smiled one American correspondent.

Olmert knows that there are those in President George W. Bush’s camp who are also baffled by Rice’s diplomatic activism. Statements that she made in interviews last week reminded some of them of former president Bill Clinton’s months of delusions leading up to Camp David. On Friday, when Rice was en route to the region, Olmert and Bush spoke on the phone. It is not clear who called whom, and what exactly was said, but Olmert announced after the conversation that Bush is in line with him about insisting on "the Quartet’s conditions" for the Palestinian government: recognize Israel, renounce terror and honor previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Rice’s aides quickly took note of the message. Their Israeli interlocutors had gotten the impression that they sounded more committed and determined than before to enforce the Quartet’s conditions and to boycott the Palestinian unity government.

Phone conversations between the prime minister and the president are not an everyday occurrence. During the Lebanon War the two kept their distance until the end of the fighting, so as to prevent rumors of either encouragement or pressure. If Bush decided to talk this time, it is not by chance. The conversation between Olmert and Bush set the boundaries of the framework for the summit and channeled it into a playing field suitable to Olmert. It also denied Rice the ability to pressure Olmert, who had already clinched the matter with her boss.

American journalists who flew in with Rice noticed that the White House did not harbinger her visit with the routine statement that Bush "is sending the secretary of state" to make peace. The silence was interpreted as displeasure and keeping a distance from the failure. This impression was only reinforced when Rice told reporters that before she took off she had a long conversation with Bush, at the end of which she decided to make the trip despite the Mecca agreement. She did not say whether Bush tried to persuade her to stay home. Israeli sources who were involved in the organizing said, until the very last minute, that it was not certain a summit would take place.

The White House: Give Honor

Presidents Day was celebrated this week in the United States, as is customary, with a long weekend of shopping and bits of worthless trivia. "Who was the first president to have worn long trousers regularly?" a Washington diplomat asked his son at breakfast. John Adams, the boy responded correctly. Entertainment shows took advantage of the holiday to launch a fusillade of well-directed blows, mainly at the current president, but not only at him: "Today we honor presidents ranging from George Washington, who couldn’t tell a lie, to George Bush, who couldn’t tell the truth. And Bill Clinton who couldn’t tell the difference," said one moderator.

And here is another morsel of trivia, this one closer to home: It is an oft- repeated notion that Bush and Clinton are the presidents most friendly to Israel, but it is possible that Lyndon Johnson was even friendlier. In any case, Johnson is no longer with us, Bush has only another two years in the White House, and who knows what will come after them. Rice’s frequent and well-publicized visits are thrusting the Palestinian issue onto center stage. However, in recent weeks there has been lively discussion in Jerusalem of the question of where these special relations are headed and whether it is a good idea to ask Bush for a farewell gift.

One school of thought says that since Bush is the best thing ever to happen to Israel, it is important to exploit the remainder of his term to upgrade relations. At the senior levels of the administration there are a number of Israel supporters who would no doubt be glad to help. The adversarial Congress (with a Democratic majority), for its part, will also not get in the way: Support for Israel is strong in both parties, certainly in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. The nuclear threat developing in Iran, say proponents of strategic upgrading, provides justification for such a move.

But what should be upgraded and how is up for debate. Yoram Ben-Zeev, the deputy director for North America at the Foreign Ministry, has led a series of discussions on the creation of a new umbrella agreement that would combine all the memoranda of understanding between the United States and Israel, give them new validity and highlight the special nature of the relations.

The director general of the ministry, Aharon Abramovitch, and his deputy Yossi Gal were also present at the Foreign Ministry meetings, in which those in attendance were people who have dealt with Israel-U.S. relations for many years, like former ambassadors to Washington Zalman Shoval and David Ivry, former economic Washington attache Danny Halperin, Brigadier General (Res.) Eival Giladi and Zvi Rafiah, who served as an envoy to Congress.

The consensus emerging among them has three prongs: Bush is a friend and there are few like him; Israel does not need a strategic defense treaty; and the time has come to compile a comprehensive – and authorized – inventory of the agreements between the countries. This is a collection of hundreds of documents and memoranda scattered among various government ministries and it is doubtful that there is anyone who is familiar with all of them.

Former Foreign Ministry director general Ron Prosor offered a different approach. Instead of formulating a large agreement, it would be better if Bush gave a quiet order to the bureaucracy in Washington to come toward Israel on a number of sensitive areas. His approach is that at a time when opposition in the U.S. to any military involvement in the Middle East is surging, Israel can show some consideration. Instead of asking for defense treaties, it should simply say: "Give us the tools and we’ll do the work."

Prosor advises Transportation and Road Safety Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is coordinating the strategic dialogue with the United States, and had suggested that he bring up the upgrading requests at a meeting that was held last month. There are three Israeli upgrading requests in the pipeline, one of which concerns civilian cooperation in the nuclear file – now limited because of Israel’s refusal to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The exemption India received from these restrictions has encouraged the Israel Atomic Energy Commission to try to obtain similar easements, even if on a limited scale. Last month, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph visited Jerusalem. His hosts quietly asked him what can be done. Other requests concerned access to advanced military technology for quality intelligence – a hint at a possible conflict with Iran.

Capitol Hill: Give Money

The Mecca agreement dealt a blow not only to the lovely plan that Livni and Rice concocted, but also to the small amount of trust the legislators in Washington had for the head of the PA. After the effort invested in depicting him as a moderate, after all the money and weapons he received, Abbas chose to embrace the extremists. Although Rice insisted on coming to the region and holding the summit, no admiration was registered on Capitol Hill. Hard words were cast at the Palestinian leader in hearings and interviews. Abu Mazen has "capitulated to the Hamas," asserted Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the chairman of the International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East. In 2002, Ackerman canceled a meeting with Yasser Arafat in the wake of the Palestinian arms ship "Karin A" affair. Arafat, said several members of Ackerman’s delegation to the prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, is not a partner for peace, nor will he ever be.

And while the words of the Ackerman committee speak for themselves, in the committee of another Democratic legislator from New York, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, it is money that talks. As chair of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Subcommittee in the House of Representatives, she has frozen the transfer of the planned aid to the Palestinians until clarifications are received from the State Department. Israel has been very cautious and has not applied pressure in this direction, so as not to agitate the administration. But no tears were shed at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, upon getting wind of the freeze.

The judge in the trial of the two former senior AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who are charged with having transferred secret information to Israel, ruled last week against the defendants’ demand to compel Israeli diplomats with whom they had been in contact to testify at the trial. However, the judge also hinted at the delicate question of the organization’s relationship with Israel, and more precisely whether AIPAC has served as a back channel for transmitting messages between the administration and Israel. This could be an embarrassing and unpleasant event, both for Israel and the organization.

Israel will need AIPAC’s professionals in the coming months. Senior people in the security establishment believe that the component of American support to strive for at this time is an increase in military aid. The current agreement that defines American aid to Israel will lapse next year, and with it the civilian economic aid will end as well. Israel wants another $50 million annually in the coming decade to be added to its military aid – which currently stands at $2.4 billion a year. The government has accepted this position and has decided that the increase in aid should be the main focus, that it would be better to backburner other requests for upgrading in the interim. They will not be brought up in the strategic dialogue, therefore, and will, instead continue to be clarified in the working channels on a lower flame.

At the beginning of next month a delegation headed by Finance Ministry director general Yarom Ariav is slated to visit Washington to present the aid request. The delegation will rely on the Bush administration’s good will, support from Congress and AIPAC’s help, but also on the interest of the American military industry – a major beneficiary of the aid, which is in fact a subsidy for the purpose of advanced weapons systems in the United States.

Last December the lawmakers received the updated summary of the total American arms sales to foreign countries in the years 1998-2005, which was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on the basis of data gathered at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). Israel stars in both parts of this report – the first, which deals with signed agreements, and the second, which documents equipment that has been supplied – along with a number of other countries both in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Egypt, which enjoys the most generous level of American aid after Israel, has signed more agreements than Israel since 2002 and has also received more equipment: $8.5 billion to Egypt compared with $4.4 billion to Israel. The summary for the years 1998-2005 shows that Saudi Arabia acquired almost as much as Israel and Egypt put together – equipment that is worth about $17 billion. Israel has received $8.1 billion worth of equipment and Egypt $9.1 billion. Taiwan, incidentally, is the country outside the Middle East that has acquired equipment for the highest sum outside the Middle East since 1998: a total of $10.1 billion.

( February 27, 2007)

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