15 January 2009
Israeli Tail, American Dog
By Gwynne Dyer
Ehud Olmert really doesn’t care any more. He is serving out his time as Israel’s prime minister until next month’s election, but then he will spend a long time fighting the corruption charges that forced him to resign, and he won’t be going back into politics afterwards even if he wins. Not after two bloody, futile wars in three years, he won’t. So he’s very angry, and he tells it like it is.
On Thursday, 8 January, he had a problem. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was going to vote for a United Nations Security Council resolution that called on both Israel and its Palestinian enemy, Hamas, to accept a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, she had been largely responsible for writing it, and Olmert was furious. He wanted more time to hammer Hamas, so he phoned up George W. Bush and yanked on his choke-chain..
According to Olmert’s account of what happened, given in a speech on 13 January in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, “I said, ‘Get me President Bush on the phone’. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said, ‘I don’t care: I have to talk to him now’.
They got him off the podium, brought him to another room, and I spoke to him.”
“I told him, ‘You can’t vote in favour of this resolution.’ He said, ‘Listen, I don’t know about it. I didn’t see it. I’m not familiar with the phrasing’.” So Prime Minister Olmert told President Bush: “I’m familiar with it. You can’t vote in favour.”
Bush did as he was told: “Mr Bush gave an order to Secretary of State Rice and she did not vote in favour of it — a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organised, and manoeuvred for,” said Olmert triumphantly. “She was left pretty shamed, and abstained on a resolution she arranged.” The Security Council passed the resolution 14-0, but the United States, its principal author, abstained.
Senior Israeli politicians are usually much more circumspect about the nature of their relationship with the occupants of the White House, and Olmert’s colleagues were appalled that his anger had led him to speak so plainly. It is one thing to talk to the president of the United States that way. It is quite another thing to reveal to the American public that Israeli leaders talk to US presidents in that tone of voice.
The Bush administration, deeply embarrassed, tried to deny Olmert’s account of the conversation. The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that the story was “just 100 percent, totally, completely not true,” and the White House deputy press secretary, Tony Fratto, said more cautiously that “there are inaccuracies” in Olmert’s account of events. Olmert’s office replied curtly that “the Prime Minister’s comments on Monday were a correct account of what took place.” He really doesn’t give a damn any more.
There is little reason to doubt Olmert’s story: he may be extremely cross, but why would he make it up? After all, he did get his way. And there is every reason to doubt the Bush administration’s denials. Not only does the story humiliate Bush personally, but it gives wings to the suspicion, already widespread in the United States, that under Bush, the Israeli tail has consistently wagged the American dog.
Merely to mention this issue is still to court accusations of anti-Semitism, but the fear of such accusations that once silenced any serious examination of Israeli influence on American foreign policy has dwindled in the past few years. Indeed, Olmert’s little indiscretion has opened up a wider question: is it normal for Israeli leaders to speak to American presidents like this?
There can be little doubt that Ariel Sharon, Olmert’s predecessor, also spoke to Bush in a bullying way, because he bullied everybody. Did Binyamin Netanyahu give orders to Bill Clinton? Probably not, because silken menace is more his style, but he certainly got his way almost all of the time. Did Yitzhak Shamir talk to George H.W. Bush that way? He wouldn’t have dreamt of it, and the senior Bush would never have stood for it.
These discussions usually end up being about the alleged power of the “Jewish lobby” over US foreign policy, and in Congress it is obviously huge. The vast majority of the members of Congress will always vote for bills that involve aid or support for Israel, in many cases because they know what will happen at the next election to those who don’t. But the key foreign policy decisions are made in the White House, not in Congress, and the presidency is different.
At the top, it really depends on who the president is. Ronald Reagan always gave Israel everything it wanted, whereas Bush senior forced Shamir to start talking to the Palestinians after the first Gulf War and paved the way for the Oslo accords and the “peace process.” The United States is still a sovereign country, and it can choose its own Middle East policy if it wishes.
Which way will it go under the new administration? Well, can you imagine Barack Obama letting an Israeli prime minister talk to him like that?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Senior…voice”; and