Olmert Slams Condi… Advanced Classes in Chutzpah

This piece also appears at  TPM Cafe

Speaking in southern Israel today, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert revealed details of a call he apparently placed to President Bush which led to the US changing its vote on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860 calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and boasting how he had “shamed” the US secretary of state and laid down the law with the president (full report below). AIPAC has also slammed the Bush administration for not vetoing U.N. SCR 1860, as MJ noted earlier.

The first thing to say is that a ceasefire is vital and the U.N. resolution if it helps deliver an end to the violence, rocket-fire and the human suffering, the opening of the blockade on Gaza, and the prevention of weapon smuggling, then it is an important contribution worthy of support. Secondly, Secretary Rice would do best to respond to this act of chutzpah by using her remaining week in office to actually get that resolution implemented and deliver a meaningful ceasefire package – she can still do it and go out on a higher note than having been “Colin Powell”-ed by her own president at the U.N. and dissed by a foreign leader. But the real point is this: what Olmert said is more than just mind-boggling chutzpah – it is deeply irresponsible, insulting and will be a boomerang for Israel. Here’s the full quote and report:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was left shamefaced after President George W. Bush ordered her to abstain in a key U.N. vote on the Gaza war, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday.

“She was left shamed…a resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favor,” Olmert said in a speech in the southern town of Ashkelon.

“In the night between Thursday and Friday, when the secretary of state wanted to lead the vote on a ceasefire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favor,” Olmert said.

“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 didn’t care. ‘I need to talk to him now’. He got off the podium and spoke to me.

“I told him the United States could not vote in favor. It cannot vote in favor of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favor.” (AFP, 1/12/2009)

I have been outspokenly supportive of many of the things Olmert has courageously said as PM of Israel (I even posted a collection of them on my blog). I have been less enthusiastic, to put it mildly, of the two wars that Olmert has waged as prime minister, the incessant settlement expansion he has overseen, and the basic gap between words and deeds. But these latest comments are just remarkable. 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. The repercussions – especially when heaped on top of everything that has happened in Gaza now (and I agree that is much more important than what Olmert said) – will be ugly. Here are a few thoughts on those repercussions to leave you with (also check out my colleague Steve Clemons at his blog, The Washington Note):

1. 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.

2. This is not a way to publicly treat your friends. What example does this set for Israel with its other friends when the prime minister embarrasses an outgoing president and secretary of state in this way? Message to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: whatever you do for Israel over the next four to eight years, don’t be surprised if this is the gratitude you get. Not a clever message.

3. How is this likely to affect the hand-over of power in the US? Here’s a speculative thought for you: when Clinton handed over the reigns of power to Dubya and Colin Powell, legend has it that his parting message on the Middle East was, “Don’t trust Arafat.” What one imagines might be Secretary Rice’s parting message to Hillary Clinton on who should be trusted?

4. When world leaders take phone calls from their Israeli counterparts and are convinced to take on-board an Israeli position and act on it, should they now always expect to be similarly publicly humiliated?

Anyway, like I say, this was an act of stupidity but a revealing one. If only it could spur the ongoing administration to get a ceasefire and the incoming administration to encourage a more two-way friendship with Israel, most importantly, one that ends an occupation that is the source of so much that has gone wrong for Israel, not least the kind of hubris on display again today.