Hardly the most experienced leader in world affairs – or even the Middle East – whose statesmanship in the 2006 Lebanon War was far from brilliant, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert‘s talents are generally regarded in Washington as limited to personal survival techniques in the domestic arena. Nonetheless, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals here for the first time, President George W. Bush and his advisers made a snap decision to send him to Moscow last month to ask Russian president Vladimir Putin straight out, in a face-to-face encounter, if he is willing to embrace rapprochement with the US president and join forces for concerted action against Iran’s drive for a nuclear bomb.
Olmert was chosen for a number reasons:
1. Secrecy was assured. No one would suspect the Israeli prime minister of having been chosen by the US president to act as his intermediary for a high-powered, high-profile mission, when so many better qualified candidates were available.
2. Living in Israel are at least two ex-Russian Jewish billionaires who are close Putin. One is Lev Levayev, 51, a diamond tycoon and international real estate magnate with excellent connections in the Russian business communities of Ukraine and the Caucasus.
Levayev is reputed to talk often on the phone to Putin whose door is open to him.
Another of Putin’s close Israeli friends is Arcadi Gaydamak, 53, who since coming to Israel has bought a newspaper and a soccer team, made his mark as a philanthropist and is now running for mayor of Jerusalem. Gaydamak’s business base is in Moscow and other parts of Russia.
The two billionaires are believed to compete for access to the Kremlin. Our sources cannot say which of them put in a good word with Putin to receive Olmert on Oct. 18 at very short notice. The affair is still deeply shrouded in secrecy.
Integrated missile defenses and intelligence-sharing
3. The White House was keen on an Israeli emissary. Israel is avowedly in most immediate peril from Iran’s nuclear program. President Bush has accepted a moral and personal obligation to Israel and a list of Arab rulers, including the Saudi king and the Gulf emirs, not to walk away and leave Iran nuclear-armed when he leaves the White House. Olmert fitted the bill in line with the US-Israel strategic treaty and in keeping with such domestic considerations as the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential election as well as the pro-Israeli lobby and its political usefulness to the prime minister.
4. Very few people outside DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s readership know that Israel’s air defense system, including its Arrow anti-missile missile deployment, has been integrated in the American anti-missile network facing Iran. This close partnership was relevant to the Israeli leader’s selection for the Moscow mission.
5. So too were the deep intelligence-sharing arrangements between the US and Israeli services on the Iranian and Syrian nuclear programs. The administration was favorably impressed by the discretion with which Olmert handled Israel’s Sept. 6 attack on the North Korean plutonium reactor under construction in northern Syria. Despite heavy battering by the media, he managed to keep the lid on the true nature of the Israeli attack and keep it secret up until now.
6. US intelligence officials commended to the administration the deftness of Israeli intelligence negotiators in delicate matters. After the event, they reported that in the way he presented his proposals to the Russian president, Olmert more or less followed the lines of an obscure Israeli Mossad excursion into mediation in 1991 over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons ventures.
The high-ranking Mossad intelligence delegation went to Pyongyang, without the knowledge of President Bill Clinton, and offered North Korea a deal. For abandoning its missile and nuclear programs, Israel and the United States would develop its economy and natural resources including gold. Nothing came of this initiative.
7. The mission offered the Israeli prime minister a much-needed prestige boost, recommended also by the Israeli intelligence community, at a time when he is entangled in criminal investigations and faces in December a lethal report from the panel investigating the mismanagement of the 2006 Lebanon War.
Olmert’s three-part proposition to Putin
Washington figured a high-prestige international mission would be a lifesaver, for which the Israeli prime minister would be grateful enough to help the White House achieve an objective which has defeated every US president since Harry Truman – a solution, even a partial one, for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that, before his one-day round trip to Moscow, Olmert was thoroughly briefed by the US administration officials who maintain the regular channels linking the White House and the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. He was told to take advantage of the Russian president’s trip to Tehran on Oct. 16 ending in a washout, following which Russian engineers and technicians were pulled out of the Bushehr nuclear reactor (as exclusively revealed by debkafile on Oct. 1).
Under the impact of that experience, Putin should be receptive to an accommodation with Washington.
When he returned from Moscow on October 21, Olmert wrote a long confidential personal letter to President Bush. He reported in detail on his three-hour conversation with the Russian leader together with the three-part proposal he put before him:
- Russia would halt Russian assistance and deliveries for Iran’s nuclear program including fuel.
- Russia would lean hard on Iran to abandon the military section of its nuclear operation.
- In return, Israel would use its influence with Washington – and on Capitol Hill in particular – to promote the Russian position against the deployment of an American missile shield in East Europe and NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe, the Caucasian and the Caspian Sea regions.
US intelligence sees the flaws, but buys the rapprochement principle
The impression the Israeli leader gained from talking to Putin was, if the US satisfied Moscow on the questions of the missile shield and NATO, Moscow would reciprocate by joining the effort to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, including supporting diplomatic action and harsh sanctions through the UN Security Council.
US officials familiar with the contents of the Olmert letter told DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources that he strongly recommended that Bush take the deal with Putin forward, because if the Iranian rulers found themselves up against a solid American-Russian wall, the pragmatists led by supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, former president Hashem Rafsanjani and the sacked nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, would prevail in Tehran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have to back away from his radical positions and the US would be saved having to embark on military action against Iran.
Bush advisers, after analyzing the Olmert letter, came to the following conclusions:
First, there is no guarantee that the Russian president seriously meant what he said to the Israeli prime minister, or that he accepted any a deal.
Second, even if a US-Russian deal did take off, it would not ensure Iran abandoning its nuclear weapon plans.
Third, even after exerting every bit of its leverage against Iran, Moscow can go only so far; Russia, which only worked on the Bushehr reactor which is largely irrelevant to the military program, has been supplanted by China and North Korea, whose technological input goes straight to the heart of Iran’s weapons projects.
Fourth, if events indeed follow the script charted by Olmert, the most that can be expected is a gloves-off contest between Moscow and Beijing for influence in Iran and Muslim world. This would be good for American objectives in the Middle East and Israel, but contribute nothing to halting Iran’s nuclear plans.
Fifth, a US-Russian rapprochement may bolster Russian positions in Central Asia and the Caucasian, but also weaken American positions in Europe.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that notwithstanding these lukewarm assessments of the pros and cons of an accommodation between the two presidents, American intelligence analysts are by and large in favor of Bush going for it.