In a stunning display of arrogance and stupidity, disgraced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted in a speech, given on Monday, in Ashkelon, Israel, that he demanded to speak with President Bush last Thursday and ordered him not to vote for UN Security Council Resolution 1860, calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in their ongoing fighting. Immediately thereafter, Bush called Secretary Rice just minutes before she was to vote in favor of the resolution and instructed her not to vote for it--even though she was central in formulating and negotiating the resolution and had promised the Europeans and Arabs that the US would support it.
The full text of Olmert's controversial statements follows:
Olmert: "It transpired all of a sudden that a vote would be held in 10 minutes' time. I tried to find President Bush, and I was told he was attending an event in Philadelphia. I know that if somebody tried to find me on the phone right now, it would have to be something unusual and extraordinary for them to say: Leave it all and go to some room to talk to me. In this case, I said: I don't care, I have to talk to him right now. He was taken off the podium and brought to a side room.
I spoke with him; I told him: You can't vote for this proposal. He said: Listen, I don't know, I didn't see, don't know what it says. I told him: I know, and you can't vote for it! He then instructed the secretary of state, and she did not vote for it.
It was a proposal she had put together, one she formulated, one she organized, one she maneuvered. It left her rather embarrassed, abstaining in the vote on a proposal she herself had put together. That was why the French and the Brits said she had pulled a fast one on them, she having been the one to spur them to submit the proposals."
The reaction to Olmert's outrageous statement has been swift:
New York Times:
In an article today headlined, "Olmert Says He Made Rice Change Vote," Mark Landler calls Olmert's statement an "unusually public rebuke."
Los Angeles Times:
[This is an] episode that could sharpen tensions between the close allies [United States and Israel] at a sensitive moment.
Steve Clemons, the Washington Note:
The fact that Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave [Rice] a kick in the teeth as she departs her office is obnoxious and harmful all around.
Olmert also seemed to convey that he had George W. Bush on a little puppet string -- that he could pull the United States President out of a meeting and compel Bush to veto the course that Secretary Rice was going and had been empowered to do by that same President. True or not, Olmert crossed a real line in his statement.
Juan Cole, Informed Comment:
[Olmert] said the most amazing thing. [H]e claimed he had the ability to control US foreign policy and summarily over-rule the Secretary of State.
Olmert's account cannot be accurate as to detail. Bush was not interrupted during his speech in Philadelphia, and the speech was given many hours before the UN vote. But that kind of discrepancy is easily resolved if we want to believe that Olmert is telling the truth. When he called the White House, he may have initially gotten a staffer who said something like, Bush is away at Philadelphia for a speech. Olmert could have misunderstood the staffer to say that Bush was still giving the speech.
[After noting Rice's changing stance on the resolution], it is therefore reasonable to think that Olmert did talk to Bush last Thursday, and that he did have Rice over-ruled.
What has been the Bush administration's response to Olmert's highly insulting and embarrassing public humiliation of the president and secretary of state? Gordon Johndroe, White House spokesman said today, "I've seen these press reports, they are inaccurate." Notice that Johndroe has not claimed that Olmert's assertions are entirely without validity.
The State Department, on the other hand, has said:
The comments attributed to Olmert "are wholly inaccurate as to describing the situation, just 100-percent, totally, completely not true" and suggested that the Israeli government might want to clarify or correct the record.
As Juan Cole notes, it's true that Olmert was not accurate when he said that he pulled Bush out of a speech in Philadelphia, but this error would be overshadowed if Olmert's other statements are proven accurate.
Reuters provides further reason to trust the general accuracy of Olmert's statements:
Arab ministers said after the U.N. vote Thursday that Rice had promised them the United States would support the resolution, but then made an apparent about-face after talking to Bush.
A few minutes before the scheduled vote at the United Nations, Rice's staff told reporters she would make a few brief comments beforehand, but then abruptly canceled her press appearance, saying she would instead speak to Bush by phone. The vote was delayed while other ministers waited for Rice to finish the call. She then entered the U.N. Security Council chamber, huddled with Arab ministers who shook their heads as she spoke to them.
Immediately after the vote, Rice left for Washington without talking to waiting reporters. Her spokesman did not return repeated calls and e-mail over why Rice had reneged on her promise to Arab leaders to back the vote.
Why would Olmert publicly claim to be able to demand successfully that the president speak with him immediately, further demand that the US not support a UN ceasefire vote, and brag about having embarrassed the secretary of state?
According to Paul Richter, in the LA Times:
Within Israel, Olmert and his government have been under heavy criticism for not being able to blunt passage of the cease-fire resolution, and some analysts in the United States and Israel saw the comments as an attempt to deflect blame.
Furthermore, Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, who currently works for the Century Foundation in Washington notes:
Olmert is known to have a personality with an arrogant streak. Most likely that was on display rather than a deeply thought through political move. Olmert was speaking in Hebrew in the southern city of Ashkelon but surely he couldn't imagine that this would not be picked up by the world's media.
Juan Cole concludes:
The likelihood is that Olmert was stung by severe criticism of his government for allowing the UNSC cease-fire resolution to be passed. His Kadima Party is in a neck and neck race with the even more hard line and far rightwing Likud Party, with elections to be held on February 10. Presumably Olmert was trying to deflect the Likudniks' charges that Kadima was inept or impotent, and to improve the standing of his would-be successor, Tzipi Livni (now the Foreign Minister).
Olmert is having to step down as prime minister because of a corruption scandal that blew up in his face and made him look petty and greedy. As a mediocre politician with an over-sized ego, he doesn't have many opportunities left to try to rehabilitate his reputation. If he pushed W. around for Israel's sake while she warred with the Hamas terrorists (his way of thinking), then maybe that would take some of the edge off his unseemly money-grubbing and massive list of failures, which include the 2006 Lebanon War.
What is the possible impact of Olmert's statements on U.S.-Israeli relations and American Middle East policy?
Levy, the former Israeli peace negotiator, predicts that the "repercussions will be ugly":
This episode will play out for a very long time in the Arab world and its media, and it will be used to confirm every conspiracy and stereotype about the tail wagging the dog when it comes to Israel and US foreign policy in the Middle East. You can imagine it. The American president takes his instructions via phone from Israel. Oy! This is all we need.
Shaming a US President and Secretary of State may not change the course in policy and may not shift America's general approach to the region, at least for the time being, but it does take the fizz out of the unique relationship.
It is certainly sending a signal to many in the incoming Obama administration that while there are convergent American and Israeli interests -- friendship and trust are eroding whether one wants to admit publicly or not.
Regardless of whether Olmert's boasts are entirely truthful, his incredibly short-sighted rhetoric will go a long way towards supporting claims made about the power of the Israel Lobby to influence American Middle East policy in ways that hurt American (and Middle Eastern) interests. Already, Olmert's remarks are being reported all over the Muslim and Arab worlds, further delegitimizing the US as a potential neutral party between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the I/P conflict.
Obviously, the Israel Lobby does not completely determine American foreign policy in the region (e.g. AIPAC went "ballistic" when Bush abstained in the UN ceasefire vote rather than vote against, Bush allegedly refused to support an Israeli attack on Iran last year).
Nevertheless, if Olmert's claims are generally accurate, the views of Mearsheimer and Walt, former President Jimmy Carter, many Kossacks, and others, decrying the overwhelming influence the Israeli Lobby has on our government officials, will be reinforced.
UPDATE: The following has recently been reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York:
Video has surfaced (if you can navigate the Hebrew, click here) of Olmert bragging to an Israeli audience earlier this week that he had personally gotten President Bush to "shame" his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
If possible, someone who understands Hebrew can follow the link to the Israeli website, embed the video of Olmert's remarks, and/or translate Olmert's remarks into English and post the results in comments.
When we saw that the Secretary of State, for reasons which I don't understand,
wanted to support the UN resolution, and we didn't want her to vote for it,
and all of a sudden it turns out, bim-bam, the vote is on in 10 minutes,
and I am looking for President Bush,
I said, "I don't care, I need to speak with him right now."
They got him off the podium, they took him to another room,
I talked to him, I said to him, "It can't be that you're going to vote for this resolution."
He said, "Listen, I don't know [it], I haven't seen [it], I'm not familiar with the wording, I don't [whatever]"
I said "I am familiar with it. You can't vote for it."
And he issued an order to the Foreign Secretary [i.e. the SoS], and she did not vote for it.
A resolution which she had cooked up, she had worded, she'd organized, she'd maneuvered and everything,
And she ended up pretty embarrassed [or 'shamed'].
[commentary by the announcer]
Whether Olmert is boasting of his relationship with the President, or heaps scorn on Livni's relationship with the Secretary of State, the resolution in any case was not what Israel was hoping for.
Click on the link to FellowTraveler's comment for additional details about this translation and Olmert's statement.