Olmert Seeks Bush Nod as Heir to Sharon Legacy

The advance team Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert sent to Washington to set up his White House talks next Tuesday, May 23, was in fact a decoy, according to debkafile‘s exclusive sources in the US capital. That team – Dov Weisglass, Yoram Turbovitch and Shalom Turjeman – was dispatched as a sop to former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s inside circle, which is still powerful in the ruling Kadima party. Olmert himself laid the ground for his talks with American leaders through a group of friends, mainly from Texas: well-heeled Jewish power-brokers with an inside track to the Bush family and the Republican Party.
That group, our sources learn, was asked to pass on to White House officials what the prime minister expects to gain from his first meeting with President Bush. These expectations fall into three main categories:
1. Public presidential acknowledgement of his status as heir to the Ariel Sharon legacy as the administration’s trusted ally in Jerusalem.
2. Endorsement for his policy to shun Mahmoud Abbas as negotiating partner as long as he heads the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
This will be complicated by President Bush’s insistence on his statement after the meeting stressing the need for preliminary dialogue with the Palestinians to precede every Israeli step – whenever this is possible.
3. The American leader also intends inserting a sentence warning Israel against unilaterally establishing facts with regard to permanent frontiers, except in negotiation with the Palestinians. Bush will remark that this position does not run contrary to America welcoming further Israeli pullbacks from the West Bank.
The prime minister’s aides are already working on the phrasing of this ambiguous position for home consumption, to make it sound like a declaration of support for the Olmert consolidation program for Israeli West Bank settlements.
On the whole, Olmert may find his first White House talks disappointing.
According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the prime minister’s friends were told in their secret exchanges that the administration prefers a low profile for its future contacts with the Olmert government. Jerusalem has been asked for a replacement as soon as possible for Danny Ayalon, the Sharon-appointed Israeli ambassador who is due to end his tour of duty in Washington. The US officials asked for an envoy who Olmert trusts to act as the channel for his contacts with the White House.
The Bush administration means to discontinue the practice observed during Sharon’s reign of top US officials traveling to Jerusalem every few weeks to clarify issues and pull policies together. From now on, Washington and Jerusalem are to meet on issues in the US capital. This is very far from a cordial welcome for the new Israeli prime and does not say much for his standing in the Bush administration’s estimation at the outset of his tenure.
The to-ings and fro-ings between Jerusalem and Washington were closely watched this week from the Black Sea resort of Sochi by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his visitor Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority. debkafile‘s Moscow sources report the two put their heads together on a joint Russian-Palestinian diplomatic-economic-military initiative, whose launch would be aimed at whipping international media and Middle East headlines away from the Bush-Olmert talks.
The subject also came up in Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s conversations with his Chinese opposition number, Li Zhaoxing, in Beijing on the Iranian nuclear issue. Lavrov tested the ground for China to join such an initiative. A reply is awaited. However, Putin and Abbas brought their plan forward to up to the point of a date. They still have to decide whether to launch their initiative ahead of the Israeli prime minister’s White House meeting – and force a reference from the US president in his closing statement – or leave it for immediately afterwards – and so steal US-Israeli thunder.
The question still hanging over the Washington talks is how much unanimity will be attained. On Iran, US officials do not buy the timeline estimated by Israeli intelligence for Iran to be within reach of weapons-grade uranium for a bomb and nuclear-capable missiles. They are certain they have three or four years to play with, and have made it clear that Jerusalem will not be allowed to force the pace.
The Israeli leader may be asked for a guarantee against any unilateral Israeli initiative on Iran without first touching base with Washington.

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