A week into the post-Ariel Sharon era of U.S.-Israeli relations, some things are already clearer than they were just a few days ago.
The first is that although the Bush administration is worried about whether any of the prime minister's possible successors will be as skillful at orchestrating territorial withdrawals as Sharon was, no change in policy toward Israel is imminent or even likely.
That's because acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert looks like he is going to have a good chance of holding on to the top job. And that would suit the Bush administration just fine.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu probably has more of a shot to beat Olmert than the experts are giving him, but the Bush team is not eager to have to deal with the testy and unpredictable Bibi. Though he is as likely as Olmert to make concessions, the path Netanyahu followed in his time as prime minister - speaking loudly, but carrying a very small stick - won him few friends in Washington.
As for Labor leader Amir Peretz, it's not too probable that an unreconstructed socialist with poor English skills will bond with the Texan in the White House.
GETTING THE GREEN LIGHT
Which brings us back to Olmert, who will campaign as the true heir of Sharon. Don't be surprised if Bush, who rightly declined to interfere in the 2003 Israeli election (in marked contrast to Bill Clinton's decision to do everything but stump for Labor candidates Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999), takes a different tack in the coming weeks. Not so subtle hints of American favor, such as an invitation to the White House, would be very helpful to Olmert.
Though the Bush-Sharon relationship has not always been the bed of roses that Sharon's P.R. machine often portrayed it as being, it was strong. Most of all, Bush gave Sharon the green light to counterattack and crush the last round of Palestinian terror warfare, and he was perfectly okay with isolating the late and unlamented Yasser Arafat in his hole in Ramallah.
Following Arafat's death, the administration developed a crush on his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. That led to tension with Sharon, who wasn't willing to drop security measures, such as checkpoints, which would have made it easier on Palestinian terrorists and Abbas.
So despite the fact that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza last summer, the blame-Israel-first crowd in Europe and this country still think Abbas' abject failures are Israel's fault. His inability to govern effectively, let alone honor the Palestinians' road-map obligation to disarm terror groups, is considered to have been the result of Israeli hard-heartedness.
That is, of course, nonsense. The descent of the Palestinian territories into chaos is the Palestinians' fault. The anarchy in Gaza has dampened Washington's daffy expectations that peace is on the horizon. But their real priority is to keep the Israel-Palestinian struggle from interfering with their plans elsewhere in the Middle East, such as the war effort in Iraq.
And that is why they are hopeful that Olmert will follow through on past hints that he's willing to lead future withdrawals from parts of the West Bank. Since "progress" in the peace process is synonymous with Israeli withdrawals, as long as more pullbacks are in the offing, Washington can tell its European and Arab "allies" things are moving in the right direction.
Though Sharon's new Kadima Party was put down as a one-man show, it appears that's not the case. As much as it was created by the force of Sharon's appeal, it looks as if something deeper was at play.
Namely, the thesis - that it was a true "third way" between the illusions about negotiations with the Palestinians championed by Labor and the Likud's rejection of any further concessions - still clicked with the Israeli public.
Can Olmert, a man without Sharon's security credentials or political stature, continue a policy of unilaterally declaring Israel's borders by pullouts from the West Bank and completion of the security fence?
If the answer turns out to be yes, that's because the willingness of the Israeli public to divest itself of as many Palestinian Arabs as possible should not be underestimated.
Abandoning parts of the West Bank will not be as easy as Gaza. These places are the heart of the Jewish homeland and resonate in the Jewish consciousness. We are also talking about a lot more Jews who would have to be displaced in order to accomplish a withdrawal to the security fence that most observers see as Israel's de facto border for the foreseeable future.
But even if we assume that Olmert has the political skills and the backing to accomplish such a traumatic plan, there is still a problem in the offing that could upset both Olmert's and Bush's plans for the region.
The problem is the willingness of the Palestinians to abide by the new terms of engagement between the two sides. Sharon's unilateralism is predicated on the notion that Israel can dictate not merely its borders, but the terms of the conflict.
ISRAELIS PLAN, PALESTINIANS DECIDE
But what if a strengthened Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade (an affiliate of Abbas' own Fatah Party) decide that it's time to launch a new wave of terror in the coming months. Though the Israelis are right to be confident about their ability to limit their losses, it is not hard to imagine things getting out of hand, especially if Israel is forced to again enter Arab cities to destroy terror bases.
The question that must haunt all of the men who want to be prime minister of Israel is whether or not George Bush will give them the leeway he gave Sharon.
Despite the talk of Sharon changing the paradigm of the conflict, the choice between peace and war, even after unilateral withdrawal, will not be in the hands of any one Israeli leader.
It's always the Palestinians who have that choice. As long as Palestinian leaders can win popularity on the basis of how many Jews they kill - and not on their ability to provide jobs or sewer systems - no plan for regional quiet, let alone peace, is secure. And any hint that the administration wants to hamper Israel's right to defend itself will be an open invitation to bloodshed.
Rather than promoting Olmert as the person who will advance a peace process that doesn't exist, the best thing the administration can do is to lower everyone's expectations about "progress," and concentrate its diplomacy on Palestinian terror.