Jack Straw removed his jacket and sat on the sofa at the British ambassador's residence in Ramat Gan. The British foreign secretary seemed very relaxed. No signs of the severe crisis Europe is facing, nor of the fact that he played a key role in the unfolding drama. And no wonder: If Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder were the big losers in the crisis sparked by the French and Dutch rejection of the European Union constitution - Tony Blair and his foreign secretary Straw were certainly the bigger winners; if the "federalist" Europe of the Paris-Berlin axis suffered a major blow, the "minimalist" one of Britain and the Euro-skeptics got the upper hand.
Straw, who arrived Wednesday for a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, refuses to admit this. In an interview with Haaretz, he laments the "setback" of the constitution, which he helped shape.
His transparent crocodile tears here complement his brilliant performance early this week in Britain's House of Commons. Europe waited with bated breath for him to announce the fate of the planned British referendum on the constitution. His announcement was a masterpiece of British tactics and sophistication: the referendum would not be canceled, but suspended. With the constitution in terminal condition, the British preferred to have others dirty their hands with the burial.
Israel tends to see a weakened and more "Anglo-Saxon EU" as a positive development. Straw wishes to counter that view: Such a development "is not good for the international community, nor for the British." As someone whose country will receive the rotating EU presidency on July 1, Straw adds that, contrary to some assessments, the EU's common foreign policy and the European consensus on the Middle East will not suffer.
Straw, who will preside over the EU's Council of Ministers, says the Middle East will be one top British priority. "We will actively support the Sharon government's courageous plan for disengagement from Gaza and we will provide practical support for the Palestinians as they assume full responsibility for the security, economy and civil society in Gaza."
How does this fit with the revelation, on the eve of his visit, that British diplomats recently met with Hamas officials? Straw, who championed Hamas' inclusion on the British and EU lists of terrorist organizations, harks back to a day in 1973, when he arrived for work as a lawyer at the Old Bailey. Four IRA bombs exploded that day in central London, one of them outside the courtroom. Straw was lightly wounded by glass shards. He says the experience enabled him to understand fellow victims, and therefore he "would never compromise with terror."
Straw says the meetings with Hamas mayors, which he himself revealed in a BBC interview, are an exception. Hamas leaders should be boycotted until they meet two inflexible conditions: to "renounce violence and abandon their revolting charter which calls for the destruction of Israel."
What if Hamas wins the PA parliamentary elections? "In that case," he concedes, "all of us - and Israel first and foremost - will face a dilemma."
During his visit to the PA, Straw proclaimed that the Palestinians hold the key to disengagement. Only eliminating terrorism, subduing Hamas extremists and implementing reforms will guarantee continued Israeli withdrawal after the Gaza pullout, he said.
In Israel, including in this interview, Straw went out of his way to support Prime Minister Sharon's disengagement plan. Not a word about the road map or further evacuations.
Asked for his views on the American stance that is preventing Israel from responding to overtures from Syrian President Bashar Assad, Straw is caught off guard. After a moment he gives an ambivalent reply, repeating American demands that Syria officially recognize Lebanon, remove its intelligence services and assume responsibility for disarming Hezbollah, but adding: "In the end, Israel will have to make its own judgment about its relations with Syria. After all, both the U.S. and the U.K. are thousands of miles away."
Asked how long Britain, Germany and France will let Iran pull the wool over their eyes, Straw laughs at the "very balanced question," and then displays the gap between Israeli and European positions: "Our difficult negotiations - which have the support of the U.S. and broad cooperation from Russia - have led, so far, to the suspension of all fuel cycle activity, uranium conversion and enrichment. Anyone worried about Iran's nuclear intentions should see this as an advance. Negotiations will enter another difficult phase in late July or early August."
And what if it transpires that they were concealing plans for developing nuclear weapons?
"In that case, the wrath of the international community will be only greater given the consensus that we have built up and the patience that we have shown."
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