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Between Annapolis and Bush's Presidential Visit to Israel

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After seven years, George W. Bush will make his first ever visit as President to Israel next month. In preparing the trip, he would do well to reflect on the meaning of an interview given by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Israeli journalists on his departure from the recent Annapolis summit. Here is what Olmert told the Haaretz newspaper:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.

Defining the two state solution as nothing short of an act of survival for Israel, creates a framing whereby the benefits of keeping an extra percent or two of West Bank land, an extra settlement, can no longer be justification for collapsing negotiations. Should the negotiations sponsors in Washington choose to do so, they can interpret this message as an invitation to close a deal.

Detractors may brandish Olmert's appeal, under this interpretation, as an act of cowardice or even irresponsibility. They could not be more wrong. While a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement is always preferable, under current circumstances of entrenched narratives, mutual distrust and weakness, an American-brokered and internationally-endorsed deal offers a more realistic path to success. There exists a fragile majority on both sides for a no-nonsense two-state deal in line with the proposals of former President Clinton or the Geneva Initiative. Both publics simply do not believe that the other side is ready. On the tough issues it is easier for an Israeli leader to say yes to an American President, than to his Palestinian counterpart, and for the public to accept such an outcome.

The motives behind the Israeli Prime Minister's embrace of the peace process have been attacked from right and left. The right pillory him as a discredited leader who is trying to distract public attention from the police investigations against him and the Winograd Report into last summer's disastrous Lebanon War, due shortly. The left suspects that the lofty words of Annapolis only provide cover to further entrench the occupation. Perhaps both have a point. But Ehud Olmert's journey towards two-state-realism did not begin at Annapolis. From being a hawkish Likud parliamentarian who opposed the peace treaty with Egypt, and a pugnacious Mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, in 2006, became the first person to stand for Prime Minister of Israel on a detailed platform explicitly outlining a significant withdrawal from the West Bank. Already in 2003, Olmert challenged his then Likud colleagues to concede their dreams of a Greater Israel, "it will lead to the loss of Israel as a Jewish State," he said.

Olmert today appears to be a convert with a sense of urgency, destiny, and, perhaps post-Annapolis, opportunity. The Arab leaders and their peace initiative may not be around forever and there are surely advantages to Israel in closing a deal before American power in the region is further eroded. Olmert's "peace or bust" message suggests that the US Administration should not content itself with supporting the bilateral talks, rather it should actively help carry the sides over the finishing line. During his visit to the Middle East, President Bush should begin to explore this option.

In that Haaretz interview the Israeli PM had a second message for another audience, the American Jewish community. Olmert stated that under the South-African style scenario (no two-state deal), "the Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us". The binary choice -- Israel can do no wrong or Israel can do no right -- is one with which most American Jews are not comfortable. This choice also threatens to increase alienation from both Israel and from communal organizations and to produce an increasingly divided Jewish political voice. Olmert, recognizing this fault-line, is offering a different option, an Israel that is normal, that again becomes an uncontroversial and unifying cornerstone of Jewish identity. American Jewish support for ending the occupation becomes an act of enlightened self-interest.

Achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be hugely significant even if its implementation likely necessitates a new and inclusive approach towards Hamas and more realistic expectations regarding the type of security that any Palestinian leadership can provide Israel while still under occupation.

Ehud Olmert cannot openly call for an American push, and would have to deny any such inference. He can though hint. He has now hinted. It is not every day that an American president turns to find an Israeli prime minister whose arm is outstretched displaying a Post-it sticker with the words "twist here." Of course an Administration that has been so illiterate on the Middle East may not even be able to read the small print scribbled by its' closest ally. And the much-needed arm twist would not have to be particularly painful, more akin to clicking a joint in a friend's back into position again. That kind of corrective act, not the toe-curling rhetoric about World War III, would help to remove the niggling, wearing, tearing dislocation of being an occupier and would really be an act of American friendship to Israel. Can President Bush rise to the occasion? Don't hold your breathe, but January's visit will provide some clues.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli prime minister's office and official Israeli peace negotiator and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.