Which of the two men is the leader of the greatest power on earth and which is the boss of a small client state?
A visitor from another planet, attending the press conference in Jerusalem, would find it hard not to answer: Olmert is the president of the great power, Bush is his vassal.
Olmert is taller. He talked endlessly, while Bush listened patiently. While Olmert anointed Bush with flattery that would have made a Byzantine emperor blush, it was quite clear that it is Olmert who decides policy, while Bush humbly accepts the Israeli diktat. And Bush’s flattery of Olmert exceeded even Olmert’s flattery of Bush.
Both, we learned, are "courageous." Both are "determined." Both have a "vision." The word "vision," once reserved for prophets, starred in every second sentence. (Bush could not know that in Israel, "vision" has long become a jocular appellation for highfalutin speeches, usually in combination with the word "Zionism.")
The president and the prime minister have something else in common: not a word of what they said at the press conference had any connection with the truth.
One of the most moving dramas in the Bible tells about our old, blind forefather, Isaac, who wanted to bless his eldest son, Esau, a reddish and hairy hunter. But the second son, the homebody (or rather tent-body) Jacob, exploited the absence of his brother and went to his father in order to steal the blessing. He wore Esau’s clothes and covered his arms with hairy goat skins. The ruse nearly failed when the father felt the arms of Jacob and his suspicion was aroused.
That’s when he uttered the famous words: "The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau" (Genesis 27: 22).
Yet Jacob, the impostor, did receive the blessing and became the father of the nation which was named after him (he was also called Israel). It seems that Ehud Olmert is a true successor: there is no connection between his voice and his hands.
Anyone who listens to him – not just at the press conference, but also on every other occasion – hears words of peace and reason: The Palestinians must have a state of their own. The "vision" must be realized while Bush is president, because Israel has never had and never will have a truer friend. The settlement outposts must be removed, as promised by us again and again. The settlements must be frozen. Etc., etc.
That is the voice of Jacob. But the hands, well, they are the hands of Esau.
Before Annapolis, during Annapolis, and after Annapolis, nothing at all was done to promote the Two-State Solution. The negotiations were about to begin – any moment now – a year ago, and now they are again about to begin – any moment now. Yes, the "core issues" – borders, Jerusalem, refugees – will be addressed. Sure. Any moment now.
But in the meantime, the hands of Esau are working feverishly. All over the occupied territories, the settlements are being enlarged. The existing outposts remain untouched; new ones spring up from time to time. Around them, a well-choreographed dance has evolved, a kind of formal ballet executed by the settlers and the army. The settlers set up a new outpost, the army removes it, the settlers return and set it up again, the army dismantles, and so forth.
In the meantime, the outpost gets bigger and bigger. The government connects it to the electricity and water systems and builds a road. And the army, of course, protects it day and night. We cannot leave good Jews at the mercy of the evil Palestinian terrorists, can we?
Bush knows all this and still continues to blabber that "the illegal outposts must be removed." And so it continues: the voice is Jacob’s voice, the hands are the hands of Esau.
But one cannot fool all of the people all of the time, to quote another American president who was slightly more intelligent than the present incumbent.
And so, after Olmert and Bush repeated the mantra about removing the outposts and freezing the settlements, one of the journalists popped an innocent question: How does this fit together with the announcement about the building of a huge new housing project at Har Homa?
If anyone thought that this would embarrass Olmert, he was sadly mistaken. Olmert just cannot be embarrassed. He simply answered that this promise does not apply to Jerusalem, nor to the "Jewish population centers" beyond the Green Line.
"Jerusalem" – since the time of Levy Eshkol – is not only the Old City and the Holy Basin. It is the huge tract of land annexed to Israel after the Six-Day War, from the approaches to Bethlehem to the outskirts of Ramallah. This area includes the hill that was once forested and called Jebel Abu-Ghneim, now the site of the big and ugly Har Homa settlement. And the "population centers" are the big settlement blocs in the occupied Palestinian territories, which President Bush so generously presented to Ariel Sharon.
This means that almost all the extensive building activities that are now going on beyond the Green Line are not covered by the Israeli undertaking to freeze the settlements. And while Olmert publicly announced this, President Bush was standing at his side, smiling foolishly and painting on another layer of compliments.
The following day, Bush visited Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and told the shocked Palestinians that the innumerable Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank, which turn the life of the Palestinians into hell, are necessary for the protection of Israel and must remain where they are – until after the establishment of the hoped-for democratic Palestinian state.
Condoleezza Rice was quick to remind him in private that this was not very wise, since he was about to visit half a dozen Arab countries. So Bush hastened to call another press conference in Jerusalem, talking about the "core issues": there would be a "contiguous" Palestinian state, but the 1949 borders (the Green Line) would not be restored. He would not speak about Jerusalem. Also, the refugee problem would be settled by an international fund – meaning that none at all would be allowed to return.
Altogether, much less than Bill Clinton’s 2000 "parameters," and less than most Israelis are already prepared to accept. It amounts to 110-percent support for the official Israeli government line.
After that, Bush had dinner with Israeli cabinet ministers. He cordially shook the hand of Minister Rafael Eitan, the former spymaster who controlled the Israeli spy in Washington, Jonathan Pollard, whom Bush refuses to pardon. (Eitan would be arrested the moment he set foot on American soil.) He spoke cordially with the ultra-rightist Minister Avigdor Lieberman, urging him to support Olmert. Throughout the dinner, he talked and talked, until Condi sent him a discreet note suggesting that he shut up. Bush, in high spirits, read the note out loud.
I have mentioned more than once the British World War II poster which was pasted up on the walls in Palestine: "Is this trip really necessary?"
That is again the question now: Is this trip of Bush’s really necessary?
The answer is: Of course. Necessary for Bush. Necessary for Olmert. Necessary for Abbas, too.
For Bush, because he is a lame duck, in the last year of his term, and therefore almost paralyzed. In the United States he is rapidly becoming irrelevant. His touted Middle East tour has been drowned out by the primary elections mayhem, which produces a new drama almost every day. While Hillary wrestles with Obama and the glib Bill competes with an impressive black grandma, who cares where the worst president in American history is traipsing around?
Olmert is well aware of the situation. When he declares that the last year of the term of his noble friend must be used, what he really means to say is he cannot exert any pressure on us, he cannot even "nudge" us, as he promises. There is no need to remove even one single outpost for him. So let us squeeze the last drop of juice out of his presidency, before he is thrown onto the trash pile of history.
But Olmert needs the presence of Bush at his side, because his position is not much more secure than Bush’s. Bush is bankrupt in a big way, after starting one of the most pointless and unsuccessful wars in U.S. history. That is true for Olmert in a small way. He is bankrupt too, and he also started a pointless, failed war.
In two weeks time, the Winograd Commission will publish its final report on Lebanon War II, and everyone expects it to come down on Olmert like a 16-ton weight. He may survive, if only because there is now no credible substitute. But he needs all the help he can get – and what better help than the "Leader of the Free World" gazing at him with liquid eyes?
It’s the old story about the lame and the blind.
This was not Bush’s last presidential visit to Israel. He has already promised to return on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state, which falls this year (in accordance with the Hebrew calendar) on May 8. What else can a president do in his last months in office, except star in ceremonies with kings, presidents, and prime ministers?
Perhaps he had intended to finish with a big bang, a historic climax that would overshadow even his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, such as a grand attack on Iran. But it seems that the U.S. intelligence community, in a patriotic act that makes up for some of its earlier sins, has prevented this by publishing its sensational report.
True, this week something happened that put on a warning light. Some small Iranian boats were reported to have made a provocative gesture against the powerful American warships in the Strait of Hormuz.
That takes us right back to 1964 and to what has become known as the "Gulf of Tonkin incident." President Lyndon Johnson announced that Vietnamese vessels had attacked American warships. That was a lie, but it was enough for Congress to empower the president to widen the war that killed millions of people (and buried Johnson’s career).
But this time the red light went out quickly. The U.S. Congress is not what it was, it seems that the Americans have no stomach for another war, the historical parallel was too obvious. Bush has been left without an option for war. He has been left with nothing.
Apart from Olmert’s flattery, of course.