Olmert told Cheney that if America decided to go ahead with the bombing, the administration would consider whether it would publicly take responsibility and if Israel acted, the US would remain quiet
In 1998, George W. Bush made his first trip to Israel. He had just been reelected governor of Texas – the first governor to win back-to-back terms in the Lone Star State – and he was already plotting his presidential bid.
During the visit – together with a few other Republican governors – Bush made the standard gubernatorial stops: a meeting with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a tour of the Knesset, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the Western Wall. He then took a helicopter ride up to the Golan Heights. His guide for the flight was none other than Ariel Sharon, the fabled IDF general who was serving at the time as Israel’s foreign minister.
Little did the twou know that in just three years they would meet again, although this time as president and prime minister. The helicopter ride sparked a mini-crisis between Israel, the US and the Palestinians. Sharon wanted to land the helicopter in the West Bank to show Bush the reality on the ground, but the Palestinians objected.
They feared that Israel would use the visit to try legitimizing the settlement enterprise, which Sharon had long championed. In the end, Israel compromised. The helicopter didn’t land but it flew low enough for Bush to see Jerusalem’s ancient rooftops, the ridges overlooking the Jordan Valley, the red-roofed stucco homes in the Israeli settlements and the densely populated Palestinian cities. Sharon and Bush wore headphones so they could communicate over the noise made by the Black Hawk helicopter’s rotors.
The former IDF general shared with the Texas governor his own personal story, pointing along the way at hills and valleys where he had waged battle in past Israeli-Arab wars. When Sharon told Bush that at its narrowest point Israel was just 10 miles wide, the future president joked that some driveways in Texas are longer.
Bush also met with Ehud Olmert, who was then mayor of Jerusalem. During their meeting, Bush asked Olmert what the biggest challenge was being mayor of one of the most contentious cities in the world. “Collecting garbage,” Olmert said without missing a beat. Bush couldn’t believe it. A city as complicated and as tense as Jerusalem and the mayor was concerned about picking up the trash!
The visit had a tremendous impact on Bush, and his meeting with Olmert was a story he relished retelling. In 2004, for example, when he took the stage at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington, DC, he opened by saying that he heard his old friend Ehud Olmert was in the crowd. To general laughter, he retold the garbage story.
While Bush’s father had a tenuous relationship with Israel as president, the younger Bush fell in love with the Jewish state. His visit showed him not just how small and vulnerable Israel was, but also how committed its people were to the land and the Jewish nation.
He was impressed by the country’s vibrant character as the only real democracy in the Middle East. While in the Golan Heights, for example, he met a woman who had moved to Israel from Texas; her husband was one of the largest avocado growers in Israel.
“It was really interesting to hear the human side of what it’s like to love a country as much as she does and yet have the concerns about living so close to a border of a nation [Syria] that often posed a real threat to their way of life,” Bush later recounted.
The feelings he took away stuck with him. When he eventually became president, he told his national security team in January 2001 that the US would be “correcting the imbalances” of the previous administration. “We’re going to tilt back toward Israel and we’re going to be consistent,” he said, referring specifically to what he had seen during his helicopter ride with Sharon. “Looked real bad down there. I don’t see much we can do over there at this point. I think it’s time to pull out of that situation.”
Bush and Sharon had a unique relationship, and Olmert worked to deepen those ties. Shortly after being elected in March 2006, Olmert flew to the US for his first meeting as prime minister with the president.
The two had a lot in common. They were around the same age – Olmert was born 10 months before Bush – and they both came from political homes. Bush’s father was America’s 41st president; Olmert’s father was a former member of Knesset.
While the two had met several times in the past, Olmert’s visit to Washington, DC, on June 19, 2007, was of strategic importance. The Prime Minister’s Office told reporters that he was going to the US to talk about the Palestinians. A few days earlier, Hamas had overrun the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. It was two years since Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from Gaza, which was now under the control of a terrorist organization. There was plenty for the two leaders to discuss.
Olmert spent hours with his staff preparing for the meeting. He knew that this would be his opportunity to convince the president about the need for US action against Syria’s nuclear reactor. A “people person,” Olmert can turn on his charm when needed. What he couldn’t do by phone, he hoped to be able to do in person.
At their meeting later that day in the Oval Office, the two leaders sat in blue and yellow striped armchairs, in front of the fireplace under the portrait of George Washington. With the cameras in the room, the two spoke primarily about Gaza and the Palestinians. Bush reaffirmed American support for a two-state solution, while expressing hope that the PA would be able to regain control of the Gaza Strip.
After the leaders’ opening remarks, Bush turned to the assembled reporters and offered to take some questions. Most focused their questions on Gaza, except for one reporter who asked about Iran’s nuclear program and the viability of renewing Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. Bashar Assad had recently told a US congressional delegation in Damascus that he was prepared to open peace negotiations with Israel. Bush dismissed the question.
“They [the Israelis] can handle their own negotiations with Syria. If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria, he doesn’t need me to mediate,” he said.
Syria, though, took up much more than just one question. After the press left the room, Olmert and Bush got down to business. Vice president Dick Cheney sat in on the meeting but remained mostly silent.
Time, Olmert told the president, was running out. “If we are going to act, it needs to be soon,” he said.
At a certain point, Bush kicked out the staff and took a walk with Olmert upstairs to the president’s residence. There, the two men could sit in a more intimate setting. It was a gesture Bush reserved for world leaders he wanted to make feel special and at home. There was also a practical benefit to meeting in the residence: conversations were not recorded.
Bush shared with Olmert some of his concerns. In the meeting a few days earlier, for example, CIA chief Michael Hayden had confirmed that Syria was building a reactor but said he could not find the weapons team, the group that typically takes the enriched material and assembles a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile.
This situation, he explained, would make it difficult for him to approve a military strike. The Israeli prime minister was decisive in his response. First, he said, it was possible that within Syria’s secretive Scientific Studies and Research Center there was a section that was working on the country’s nuclear program.
And, he argued, even if that could not be guaranteed, Syria’s nuclear program still posed an existential threat to Israel and the entire region.
“IN THE history of mankind, to the best of my memory, there were only two times that atomic bombs were used against two cities,” Olmert told the president. “Your country did it. Did they have missiles? They had a bomb and dropped it from a plane, so what’s the difference?”
Imagine, Olmert continued, what would happen if 35 Syrian planes, two of which had a nuclear device on board, took off at the same time and started flying toward Israel. Even if the Israel Air Force was fast and succeeded in intercepting most of the planes, some would get through, and one of those might be one of the two planes carrying a nuke. “When their planes take off, they are above Israel within one minute,” Olmert said. “They don’t need to have a missile.”
Time was running out. America needed to act. A US-led strike would kill two birds with one stone. “I think this is a great opportunity for America and for you to send a signal to the Iranians that will not be missed,” Olmert said.
Bush was noncommittal and mostly listened. He told Olmert that he needed some more time and would give his answer in the coming weeks.
Nevertheless, Olmert had a sense of the direction this was going. He got the impression that the president’s hands were tied. The war in Iraq and the faulty intelligence that had led to it left the president with very little room to maneuver. The fact that US intelligence agencies were not giving Bush a written recommendation due to the missing “weapons of mass destruction” tied the president’s hands even more.
Later that evening, Olmert met Cheney for dinner. The Israeli prime minister was staying at Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue directly opposite the White House. The two had known each other for years.
Cheney was the former chief of staff for former president Gerald Ford. He participated each year in the World Forum, a gathering of leaders that took place annually in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and was hosted by Ford and the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. Olmert had been a regular attendee since the 1990s, when Cheney was secretary of defense. They weren’t the closest of friends, but they knew each other well.
Cheney spoke bluntly and told Olmert what he genuinely believed: America, not Israel, needed to use military force to destroy the reactor.
Olmert agreed but knew that Cheney was up against fierce opposition from secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, secretary of defense Robert Gates, and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. He told the vice president that if nuclear proliferation was allowed to continue, it would send a dangerous message to Iran and North Korea. If America didn’t act, Israel would.
Cheney agreed. Like the Israeli prime minister, he viewed the Syrian reactor as an opportunity for the US to “demonstrate we’re serious, and those of you who are thinking about proliferating, to think twice.”
Cheney had been a longtime supporter of preemptive military action to destroy nuclear capabilities. To Cheney’s credit, he was consistent in his worldview. He was in Congress in 1981, when Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, and publicly supported Israel even as it took flak from the Reagan administration.
Olmert told Cheney that if America decided in the end to go ahead with the bombing, the administration would need to consider whether it would publicly take responsibility. He said if Israel acted, the US would remain quiet in order not to provoke Assad and push him to retaliate.
Cheney completely disagreed. “On the contrary,” the vice president said. “We don’t only need to do it but need to make sure that everyone knows the policy that we will not tolerate this and the Iranians will know.”
While it was reassuring for Olmert to hear the vice president of the United States side with him, he knew it wasn’t yet the success he was looking for. The ultimate decision was up to the president, but the opposition to American military action was greater than he assumed.