Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit today to France and Britain represents a significant shift in Israel's relationship with the two European powers. For the first time in 40 years, Paris seems just as friendly as London.
Ever since the Six-Day War and the French embargo on supplying arms to Israel, Israeli prime ministers visiting Paris focused on getting through the visit in one piece. With France's former president Jacques Chirac, there was always a fear of an unpleasant barb, even when the talks were good and the carpets red.
France has traditionally supported the Palestinian and Lebanese stance. The Elysee had also made a point of distancing itself from the pro-Israel U.S. line.
France's newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is now seeking to give his country a facelift, not unlike the one Tony Blair gave Britain 10 years ago. He aims to transform France into a fashionable high-tech powerhouse from a lazy nation where workers put in no more than 35 hours a week and people are mostly concerned with their vacations.
He's closer to the U.S. than all his predecessors from Charles de Gaulle to Chirac. Sarkozy summers in New Hampshire, conveniently close to U.S. President George W. Bush's family estate in Maine. After returning from his last meeting with Bush, Sarkozy said Iran's nuclear program is the number one international problem. A more pleasant message to Israeli ears is hard to imagine.
Olmert's visit will take place against the backdrop of Sarkozy's divorce from his wife, Cecilia, and the surge of strikes that's picking up to protest the capitalistic reforms he is planning with his finance minister, Christine Lagarde (also called "the American" by some of her countrymen).
Facing the reform-oriented and energetic Sarkozy on the other side of the English Channel is the the new prime minister, Gordon Brown. In an attempt to set himself apart from his extrovert predecessor, Tony Blair, the new occupant at 10 Downing Street is demonstrating a restrained and cautious approach.
For over a decade, Brown had remained in the number-two slot as chancellor of the exchequer - Britain's finance minister. When his time finally came to take over the helm, he was quick to distance himself from the United States.
Blair is perceived as Bush's lackey because of his controversial decision to join the war in Iraq and because of his publicized friendship with the U.S. president. When Brown visited Bush at Camp David, he insisted they both wear suits and address one another by their official titles and not by their first names.
Brown, who is a truer representative of Britain's Labor Party, prefers not to make his relationship with the fading administration in Washington seem too warm. Bush is extremely unpopular among Brown's constituents.
Olmert is a great believer in personal relations, and he will undoubtedly seek a way to associate with the two leaders, who have now become important international players. He shares common traits with Brown, the history lover and intellectual, and with Sarkozy, a political gambler and sports lover.
In any event, Olmert will almost certainly say that he "was very pleased" to visit his British and French counterparts.
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