New partners search for trust

Amid crucial issues, Olmert visit serves as rapport-building session with Bush

May 23, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- They're the same age. They're both fitness buffs and sports fans.

But for now, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have little in common beyond their shared priorities, such as thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions and calming tensions in the Middle East. A meeting today at the White House - Bush's first face-to-face encounter with Olmert since he won election - is designed to change that.

The session - to be held in the elegant East Wing residence rather than the more formal Oval Office - is designed as a get-to-know-you session, which officials and analysts say could be the key to a productive partnership between Bush and Olmert.

"It's very important that the two leaders establish a rapport, because that is the baseline for developing trust and policy coordination on very sensitive issues," said David Makovsky, an analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

By week's end, Makovsky said, "we'll know one way or the other if there's chemistry. ... We'll get a sense whether they bond."

What we won't see, administration officials and analysts say, is a major breakthrough on the pressing issues that Olmert and Bush are likely to discuss, chief among them Olmert's so-called convergence plan for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.

Bush is reluctant to endorse such a plan before he knows Olmert's intentions and whether he can be trusted to follow through, analysts said.

Olmert "is promising a lot back home, and the president wants to gauge whether he can accomplish that," said Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Israeli prime minister "had to scale back his expectations of what he's actually going to achieve in this meeting," Malka said, "so the focus now is on creating and solidifying a strong relationship."

Building lasting Bush-Olmert ties is "one of the primary reasons" for the visit, said Fred Jones, a White House spokesman.

The setting for the 90-minute meeting and working dinner - to be held in the White House's old family dining room - reflects "an attempt to create a more intimate atmosphere," Jones said.

Bush likes to forge personal connections with people he works with, and tends to trust those he knows. He had a strong rapport with Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, with whom Bush shared a hawkish reputation and a penchant for the ranching lifestyle - Bush at his Crawford, Texas, getaway and Sharon at his Sycamore Ranch in the Negev desert.

Their first meeting came when Sharon took then-Governor Bush on a helicopter tour of the West Bank in 1998. That's also when Bush met Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem. But this will be the first opportunity for them to meet as principals.

Olmert has spent the days leading to today's meeting trying to ingratiate himself with Bush. He told The New York Times last week that he felt as if he was meeting "my senior partner, and I hope that he is ready to accept me as his partner."

Olmert is scheduled to hold a news conference with Bush this afternoon and to address a joint session of Congress tomorrow.

"Rapport is always very important between leaders, and especially for this president, who engages people on a very personal basis. It's important that they establish a relationship of mutual confidence and trust," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Although the two have interacted in the past, including during Olmert's tenure as Sharon's deputy, "it's still different when you come on your own, with your own agenda," Hoenlein added.

Bush wants to hear Olmert's vision for the convergence plan, administration officials say. But he does not plan to endorse Olmert's proposal, or commit to the substantial U.S. aid - some say up to $10 billion - that would be needed to finance it.

Olmert's plan runs counter to the U.S.-backed approach known as the "road map," which envisions a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian Authority, rather than a unilateral Israeli pullout from occupied areas.

The two leaders also will discuss how to deal with Hamas, which won control of the Palestinian government in January and the United States views as a terrorist organization. They will strategize about the role of Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president who is in an increasingly bitter power struggle with Hamas. A key question is how to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians while depriving Hamas of assistance.

Bush and Olmert are likely to find common ground on Iran, which the president often calls a danger to Israel's security.

Analysts also see stylistic similarities that could form the basis for a strong connection.

While Sharon was an intimidating, "larger-than-life" military figure, Olmert is, like Bush, an energetic, outgoing politician who makes quick decisions based on "gut responses," Makovsky said.

Then there are the more mundane parallels, which observers said could go a long way toward fostering rapport between Bush and Olmert. Both are sports fans; Olmert is said to like soccer and basketball, while Bush favors baseball. And they share a common passion for exercise, which Bush gets on his frequent mountain-biking excursions and Olmert fits in during early morning runs or at the gym.

"Olmert doesn't have a ranch," Hoenlein said, "but I'm sure there are other points of commonality that will help them get along."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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