Bush Talks With Israeli Author Before Meeting With Olmert

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

Before conferring with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel yesterday, President Bush held an unannounced meeting this week with onetime Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, another prominent Israeli with whom the president has forged a friendly and intriguing relationship.

Sharansky's 2004 book, "The Case for Democracy," helped Bush shape his second-term agenda of promoting freedom abroad. Now, Sharansky is pitching a new book, "Defending Identity," on the connection between freedom and identity, and he received a 40-minute Oval Office audience Tuesday with Bush and his top advisers, including Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams.

In a telephone interview, Sharansky said he found the president in a sentimental mood, with their relaxed conversation ranging from the new book, which Bush promised to read, to the status of Bush's "freedom agenda" and the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. By his own description, Sharansky offered a different perspective on the peace process than the one presented to Bush by Olmert.

While describing himself as a Bush admirer, Sharansky expressed disappointment that the president has not made greater progress promoting democracy, especially in the Palestinian territories, where he said Bush wrongly pushed for elections that resulted in Hamas -- considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel -- winning power in the Gaza Strip.

"We agreed to disagree on the point that I made in my previous book -- that elections are not democracy," said Sharansky, a former member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "He insisted that it was the right thing to have elections even if Hamas came to power because it shows the true face of Hamas."

Sharansky also said he voiced skepticism about the future of the Annapolis peace initiative promoted by Bush and Olmert. The two leaders, he said, are returning to "the same old failed theory" of putting faith in a Palestinian leader (Mahmoud Abbas) without real power, while not doing enough to build civil society in the Palestinian territories. "There is no way to bring peace from top to bottom. I am very critical about it. It is ridiculous," Sharansky said.

White House aides say Bush has worked to strengthen Palestinian institutions, including helping to arrange the appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair to work on such issues.

Sharansky and Olmert were here to attend the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the prime minister met with Bush at the White House yesterday. Olmert and Bush are still voicing optimism that Israelis and Palestinians can agree on the outlines of a Palestinian state by the end of the year, but with Olmert facing a corruption investigation at home, Sharansky is not alone in his skepticism.

Iran was apparently a key topic of discussion between Bush and Olmert. During an Oval Office photo opportunity, the two leaders touched only briefly on the status of peace talks, with Bush taking the moment to reassure the Israelis that he shares their concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions. "It's very important for the world to take the Iranian threat seriously, which the United States does," Bush said.

In his remarks, Olmert touched on a potential source of friction with Washington: Israel's recent announcement that it has been holding secret peace talks with Syria, a country Bush has identified as a major source of instability in the region. The prime minister referred without elaboration to "the compact that hopefully may lead to pull out Syria from the axis of evil."

Olmert also thanked the president for a "spectacular speech" at the Knesset during Bush's visit to Israel last month, when he criticized calls to seek talks with Iran and radical Islamist groups as "the false comfort of appeasement."

In the interview, Sharansky said that he also liked Bush's Knesset speech and that he was stunned that the U.S. media saw it as an attack on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama rather than a sign of empathy with Israel.

White House press secretary Dana Perino had little comment on Bush's meeting with Sharansky, whose publisher, Public Affairs, also published the blistering memoir by former Bush aide Scott McClellan.

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