April 6, 2006
Olmert Receives U.S. Thumbs-Up
Low-key, detail-oriented, a master of the backroom deal: The same qualities that make Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert uninspiring for some Israelis are the ones that Americans who deal with him find exciting.
Olmert's attention to the fine print and his less-than-mythic status in Israel have become subjects of parody at home.
But it's just those qualities that have made him a favorite among Jewish officials and politicians in Washington.
"He's very familiar to many members of this administration, and across the board they would all have had a positive impression of him," said Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel until last summer and who now lectures at Princeton University. "He's very smart, focused on details. When you're dealing with him, you're not dealing with someone uninterested in substance."
Olmert's powers of persuasion are about to be put to the test: He has pledged to move ahead immediately with plans to withdraw unilaterally from more West Bank territory.
Olmert wants a Palestinian state in place by the end of his term, and says he will look for ways to deal with Palestinians not affiliated with Hamas, the terrorist group set to assume control of the Palestinian Authority after winning legislative elections in January.
The P.A. president, Mahmoud Abbas, has outlined a similar scenario: The Palestine Liberation Organization, which has no Hamas affiliation, would be the partner, Abbas said in interviews, and Abbas would bypass the Hamas Cabinet and Parliament by putting any deal to a popular referendum.
Abbas did not explain how he planned to control Hamas, which already was setting much of the agenda through terrorist attacks even before it took over the government.
U.S. officials say they're eager to get started with the new Israeli government.
"We will of course engage with the Israeli government in discussions about how we move forward," Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, said on CNN recently. "I would note that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza ended up turning over to the Palestinians territory for the first time in the 30-some years of this conflict, and that was a good thing."
Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to Washington, said Olmert has a policy wonk's understanding of the United States.
"He has a very strong command of how Washington works. Not just Washington -- he knows how the United States works," said Ayalon in an interview. "On the state level, even local politics, it's quite impressive: He knows many of the governors by name."
Kurtzer agreed: "He knows how to make the rounds of a room."
Olmert's best deals have been done in back rooms, said Marvin Lender, a Connecticut entrepreneur who is one of Olmert's most ardent U.S. backers.
"Ehud has always worked behind the scenes," Lender said. "He has built tremendous relationships in Washington."
His charms are evident in one-on-one relationships, Kurtzer said. Olmert's friendship with Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative until last year, was key to settling a prickly customs-free trade agreement among Israel, the United States and Egypt, Kurtzer said.
His admirers admit that Olmert, whose military career was undistinguished and whose reflexive sarcasm often gets in the way of his lofty thoughts, may not be equal in stature to mythmakers like Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon.
"He doesn't come with negative baggage, but he also doesn't come with a hero status," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Nonetheless, Olmert's association with Sharon, the larger-than-life warrior-statesman whose debilitating stroke in January set the stage for Olmert's ascension to the Prime Minister's Office, will help sustain him.
"A critical door-opener for this administration is that he was Sharon's choice as the alternative prime minister," Kurtzer said.
Olmert's loyalty to Sharon also is a plus, said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a member of the House's International Relations Committee.
"His loyalty was legendary," said Ackerman, who met with Olmert the day after Sharon's stroke. "You didn't have to guess where he was going to stand. He made it clear at that meeting that he was not the prime minister, that he was hoping and praying that the prime minister would take his rightful place."
Since then, Olmert has left Sharon's seat empty at Cabinet meetings.
Olmert's distaste for soaring rhetoric and lack of a glorious military career may be a welcome change in a Washington used to Israeli leaders who often seem to aspire to prophecy, said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The United States will be very cognizant of the fact that he doesn't have Sharon's gravitas or his national security credentials," Makovsky said of Olmert. "Frankly, the idea of a civilian prime minister will be refreshing here in Washington."
Olmert already has staked out differences with Sharon, mapping out clear plans for the next four years: Unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank that for the most part would hew to the security barrier, evacuating 70,000 settlers and annexing other settlements that would bring at least another 100,000 settlers under Israeli sovereignty.
Olmert maintains Sharon's legacy of setting borders for an Israel that is guaranteed a Jewish majority, but "in many ways he's far more explicit in the scope of his political goals," Makovsky said. "The White House is gratified he made those ideas of settlement evacuations clear before the election."
Sharon typically played his cards much closer to his chest, and delayed discussing the dimensions of last year's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank until it was inevitable. Sharon also jealously guarded Israeli sovereignty, casting the withdrawal as solely an Israeli prerogative.
Olmert has said he would consult immediately with the "Quartet" -- the diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations, which is overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- as soon as the elections are over.
However he proceeds, Olmert will have an attentive ear here, cultivated over years of trans-Atlantic dealings: first, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's U.S. point man during the Madrid negotiations in 1991 and then as Jerusalem mayor from 1993-2003, when he stressed Israel's claim to the entire, unified city.
"He brought people closer emotionally to Jerusalem," Lender said.
Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recalled traveling with Olmert to Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in 1999 to counter Arab pressure to de-Judaize an exhibit on Jerusalem.
Olmert traveled to the United States so often, first as mayor and then as Sharon's deputy on peace matters, that his Israeli accent has faded.
"They used to joke that Ehud Olmert could be seen on two planes crossing the Atlantic in both directions, he comes here so often," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.