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Contentions

No Love Lost

As Jonathan Tobin noted, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are not particularly fond of one another — a fact well-known for quite a while. Rice apparently misses the charm and elegance of Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, and Dov Weisglass’s–his emissary to Washington–sense of humor. Olmert never treated her with genuine respect, and seldom hesitated to use his good standing with President Bush to undermine her.

Frictions between the two were never kept secret. A year and a half ago I reported (with my colleague Aluf Benn) that “[t]he Annapolis summit and the efforts to revive the peace process have exacerbated the tension that already existed between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.” While Bush is seen in Israel as a great friend, Rice is treated with suspicion. This is to be expected, given the traditional nature of the Secretary of State’s role as in-house representative of  academia and “international public opinion.”  Israel’s version Rice’s increasing disenchanment with Olmert does not flatter the Secretary:

Rice’s anger at Israel really derives from more current events: She was deeply offended at the height of the Second Lebanon War, while preparing to leave for Beirut to pull together a cease-fire, when the IDF killed Lebanese civilians during the bombing of Kafr Kana. Her trip was canceled at the last minute, the war went on for more than another two weeks, and some who know her say that Rice never forgave Israel for this slap in the face. 

However, while such stories have been circulating among reporters and columnists, the two have managed to remain civil towards each other, at least until today. Now that both are ready to step down soon–Olmert when the new Israeli government is formed in March, Rice next week–it seems as if the gloves are finally off.

At the root of Olmert’s anger is Rice’s way of handling the Security-Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. While in Israel this resolution serves as a political tool against Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (the military was well prepared for the war, while the Foreign Ministry supposedly wasn’t), Olmert’s frustration with Rice is personal. Today he was not shy about airing this irritation in explicit terms:

She was left shamed. A resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favour,” 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 favour,” 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 favour. It cannot vote in favour of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favour.

This is not the first time Olmert called Bush to demand last-minute corrections to policies initiated by Rice, but it might be the last. Rice was clearly unhappy this time–not that she had ever been happy when such a thing has happened before. Here is one prediction regarding the memoirs both Bush and Rice have promised to write: their respective assessments of Ehud Olmert’s leadership of Israel will be a major point of contention between the two.



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