Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted Monday that he successfully pressured President Bush last week to reverse course on U.S. diplomacy over fighting in Gaza, in an episode that could sharpen tensions between the close allies at a sensitive moment.
Speaking to an audience in Ashkelon, Israel, Olmert said he had called Bush last Thursday and convinced him that the United States should not vote for a pending U.N. Security Council resolution urging a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.
Olmert said Bush’s agreement “embarrassed” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice because the resolution was one that she had “cooked up, she organized, she formulated, she maneuvered,” according to comments reported by Israel Radio.
“And she was left pretty embarrassed, abstaining on a draft resolution she organized herself,” Olmert added.
Within Israel, Olmert and his government have been under heavy criticism for not being able to blunt passage of the cease-fire resolution, and some analysts in the United States and Israel saw the comments as an attempt to deflect blame.
Sean McCormack, Rice’s chief spokesman, said she had decided the previous day not to vote for the resolution. But some analysts said Olmert’s remarks would be received with displeasure in Washington, since, among other things, he suggested that Israel has been directing U.S. policy on the Middle East.
“This is terrible for the United States,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “This confirms every assumption they have in the Arab world about the tail wagging the dog. . . . It’s a story you’re likely to hear quoted there for years to come.”
Levy also accused Olmert of “unparalleled arrogance.” Olmert, who is about to leave office, may have thought mistakenly that his words would not be widely noticed.
“There are some things you don’t say, even in Ashkelon, even in Hebrew,” said Levy, who is now with the Century Foundation in Washington.
Olmert told the crowd that when he heard a Security Council vote was to come in 10 minutes, he tracked down Bush, who he was told was speaking in Philadelphia. According to Olmert’s account, Bush left the podium to take his call.
Olmert said Bush told him he wasn’t familiar with the text. But Olmert said he told the president: “ ‘I’m familiar. You can’t vote for it.’ [Bush] gave an order to the secretary of State, and she didn’t vote for it.”
The resolution was approved by 14 of the security council’s 15 members in an evening vote. Rice abstained.
U.S. officials have not disputed Olmert’s account. But in one inconsistency, Bush returned to the White House from Philadelphia hours before the U.N. vote, according to the president’s schedule.
Critics in Israel have complained that the resolution, while nonbinding, reflected a failure of Israeli diplomacy. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni didn’t attend the debate, while a number of Arab foreign ministers were deeply involved in the three days of discussions over it.
A senior U.S. official said the Bush administration preferred a peace blueprint being assembled by Egypt, but didn’t want to veto the U.N. resolution by voting against it.
There had been speculation that Rice was ordered to change course, and Olmert’s version of events “seemed to make sense,” said Nathan Brown, head of Middle East studies at George Washington University.
Rice had been pushing hard for the resolution draft, then abruptly shifted ground. Several European diplomats said afterward that they were shocked by the move.
“It seemed like a strange step,” Brown said.
Tribune correspondent Joel Greenberg and Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem and Times staff writer Geraldine Baum at the United Nations contributed to this report.