What a pleasure it is for foreign leaders to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He always emerges from his meetings with them content and smiling, and describes them as good friends. In the past eight days, he has met with the presidents of Russia and France, and the prime ministers of Britain and Turkey - and each time he came out of his meetings pleased as punch. "I talked with Putin and Sarkozy, and I speak with President Bush from time to time," he told the leaders of French Jewry on Monday evening. "If you knew what they said to me about the Iranian matter, you'd be less worried." He warmly described Gordon Brown as an old friend dating back to the days when they were both serving as finance ministers, and said he came out of talks with his Turkish colleague Recep Tayyip Erdogan "encouraged," although he declined to disclose any details.
His predecessors basked in their friendships with leaders of the world's major powers, too, but Olmert emphasizes the personal element in political relations to an even greater extent. He believes that his personal connection with his peers greases the wheels of Israel's national interests and contributes to understanding and the prevention of disagreements. He'll always prefer a tete-a-tete with fellow leaders to lengthy sessions with entourages and bureaucrats, or speeches on the record. To judge by his high spirits and the witty remarks he exchanged with journalists throughout his European trip, his talks with the other leaders must have been really pleasant.
While in Paris and London, Olmert benefited from the current warming in relations with Israel. His talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the accelerated preparations for the Annapolis summit have cleared the agenda, at least for now, of the perennial European complaints about the occupation, the settlements and the separation fence. In the campaign against Iran's nuclear program, Israel is on the same side as the Western powers. On both the Palestinian and the Iranian issues, which were the focus of the talks with Sarkozy and Brown, Olmert expressed positions that his hosts were pleased to hear. It's important to him to be in tune with them.
Anyone who was expecting Olmert to echo President George W. Bush's warning about the potential eruption of "World War III" should Iran acquire nuclear weapons was disappointed. While in Europe, Olmert spoke like a European, taking every opportunity to emphasize the importance of diplomacy. Iran is not as close to acquiring the bomb as it claims, Olmert said, and there is still a chance to stop it by means of diplomatic and economic pressure. There is no need to be pessimistic and to think only of extreme measures like a military attack. Israel is relying on the world's major powers to know what to do and to tighten the sanctions on Iran. In addition, Olmert said, Israel is aware that this will be a lengthy process, as he told leaders of Britain's Jewish community. Sarkozy and Brown, in turn, expressed firm positions on Iran, and promised to work for the toughening of the sanctions.
Olmert also described his talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday a week ago as a success. Time and again, he proudly cited the fact that Putin had welcomed him for a talk that lasted "three hours or more," despite the fact he was tired after returning from Germany and Iran, and having been up to three the previous night preparing for a long TV interview. Olmert's circle dismissed Putin's public opposition to sanctions against Iran as nothing more than a public relations maneuver. Russia's actual policy, said Olmert's aides, is closer than it seems to the position of the West and of Israel. "I am absolutely certain that Putin does not want to see a nuclear Iran," said Olmert. "The fact is that he froze a shipment of nuclear fuel to the reactor in Bushehr."
Last month's Israel Air Force operation in Syria was the only matter Olmert would not comment on. At a meeting with columnists and analysts in Paris, someone said to him: "There's an ancient Chinese saying that says to scare the monkey you have to kill the chicken. Tell me what you did on September 6 in Syria."
"I'm not sure who the monkey is and who is the chicken," Olmert replied, brushing off the question. Who knows if he used such animal analogies in his talk with Erdogan.
Working his charm
The apartment of Israel's ambassador to France, Daniel Shek, is located on Paris' Rue Foch, not far from the Arc du Triomphe. The living room walls are decorated with paintings by Gidi Rubin, Zadok Ben-David and Gabi Klezmer (the ambassador's wife, Marie Shek, is a contemporary-art curator). On Monday evening, some of France's well-known intellectuals gathered there for dinner with the Israeli prime minister.
The guests included celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy; actress Fanny Ardant; playwright Yasmina Reza, who accompanied Sarkozy during his election campaign and recorded her impressions in a book entitled "Dawn, Evening or Night;" Le Monde's editor-in-chief, Alain Frachon, who was once a reporter in Israel; Sidney Toledano, the president of the Dior fashion group; Alain de Pouzilhac, CEO of the France 24 TV channel; and Pierre Besnainou, a leader of the Jewish community and the former president of the European Jewish Congress, the only one who had previously met Olmert.
Meetings with intellectuals are unusual during visits by Israeli prime ministers abroad. It's been many years since David Ben-Gurion went on a 10-day trip to a monastery in Burma, to get an up-close view of Buddhist culture. In recent years, even dinners at the home of the Israeli ambassador in Washington, which the American power elite used to attend when Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu visited, have become a thing of the past. But in France, intellectuals still carry a special weight, and the get-together at the ambassador's home was another expression of the improvement in relations between the two countries. All of the invitees spoke English, to prevent any language barriers.
The guests talked about the internal situation in France since Sarkozy's rise to power and about the election campaign he ran against Socialist candidate Segolene Royal. Everyone present, including those who are no fans of the new president, praised his friendliness toward Israel. In his most recent book, Bernard-Henri Levy wrote that Sarkozy had asked for his support in the election campaign. He turned him down, but did so after hesitating, because of his admiration for Sarkozy's support for improved relations with Israel and the United States, and his resolute stance versus Iran.
Olmert told them that today, Israel has a different view of relations with Europe, and with France in particular. He also spoke of the peace process and the talks with the Palestinians. The diners were enchanted. It wasn't what we expected, they remarked afterward. Olmert has an image of being cold and condescending, but we met a warm and amiable fellow whose views surprised us. Once again, Olmert's charisma seems to have worked wonders in an intimate setting; yet it still evaporates when he faces the broader public.
Fine European differences
The European Union, which marked its 50th anniversary, has not managed to blur its members' national differences. France is still in love with symbols and ceremonies: The Israeli prime minister will always be received here with a military guard complete with band, swords and national anthems; while the big shots of the Jewish community will be waiting to shake his hand in the VIP room of Orly Airport. In Britain, things are a lot more efficient and to the point. At Heathrow, there are no flags, anthems or welcoming committees, the convoy of vehicles is short and compact, and the illuminated sign in the back window of the security jeep thanks drivers for their patience. Entering the Elysee Palace is a whole ceremony unto itself, while the visit to 10 Downing Street resembles a business meeting.
England is more comfortable for Israeli leaders, who can communicate with the host prime minister in his language. In France, they're accompanied by Gisele Abazon, Israel's official French interpreter, who studied acting and takes pains to convey the leaders' intonations and not only their texts. In her book on Sarkozy, Yasmina Reza described a meeting he had with Shimon Peres about a year ago, but most of her account is devoted to Abazon's "show." "I couldn't listen to the speakers, as I was so captivated by the music of the translation," wrote Reza admiringly.
Despite the differences in packaging, there was more than a little similarity between the two capitals that welcomed Olmert. Sarkozy and Brown, both of whom took office this past summer, are still busy consolidating their governments and public standing. Sarkozy was also preoccupied with his divorce from Cecilia, photos of whom were all over magazine covers and bulletin boards in Paris. Brown had just got himself into a political pickle when he raised, and then backed away from, the possibility of early elections next month, which led to an immediate plunge in the polls. Both are trying to distance themselves from the legacies of their predecessors, who spent long years in their posts, and to present a different policy.
In France, this is also evident in the support for Israel, which trickles down from the presidential palace to the national administration. In Britain, Brown is trying to take a step back from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which he would like to leave to his predecessor, Tony Blair, who updates him once a week on his efforts as the Quartet's new special Middle East envoy. Both leaders are drawing on the assistance of professional diplomats who are very familiar with the region: Jean-David Levitt, Sarkozy's Jewish-affairs adviser, played a similar role with Chirac and served as France's ambassador to Washington. Simon McDonald, Brown's adviser, was Britain's ambassador in Tel Aviv until about a year ago.
The media in both countries, engrossed with domestic matters, showed little interest in Olmert. Even the British papers, which often deal with Israel and the Palestinians, ignored the visit this time. The only one who wrote about it was columnist Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, who predicted that the Annapolis summit would be a failure. The shortage of medical supplies in Gaza aroused more interest.
The Jewish communities also greeted Olmert with a yawn, in small venues with empty seats. French Jewry is considered rightist, and meetings with them used to be a tough test for prime ministers who offered concessions to the Palestinians. Olmert addressed community activists on Monday, and didn't stir things up much. He spoke slowly and pleasantly, and waited patiently for Abazon to translate. At one point, he changed the tone. "There is one thing we will never give up," he said with passion. "And that's our right in any situation, under any condition, regardless of the political developments or consequences" - his listeners must have been waiting to hear the word "Jerusalem," but instead Olmert finished his sentence, "to be certain that we are capable of providing security to every citizen in Israel." The applause was notably weak.
Olmert's unique style of international relations could be called "soccer diplomacy." As someone so immersed in the ways of the soccer field, who remembers every score and every goal, he likes to talk with his counterparts about sports, which he finds is an excellent icebreaker that often helps improve the atmosphere. But it doesn't work with everyone: Abu Mazen has no interest in soccer, and Olmert has been forced to talk with him about the "core issues."
Olmert's preparations for the present trip included watching matches of the rugby World Cup, which were held in Paris this time.
The reporters who accompanied Olmert sometimes felt like they were in the midst of a sports program rather than a political trip. On the flight to Paris, they saw the prime minister reading a soccer newspaper. During the meeting with Sarkozy, Olmert talked about the rugby championship, and about France's loss to Scotland in soccer. With Brown, who is a Manchester United fan, Olmert analyzed the situation of the teams in the British Premier League. They talked about the upcoming game between Israel and Russia in the preliminary round of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament, whose result will affect England's chances of progressing to the next stage. Between meetings with colleagues, Olmert hosted Avram Grant, the newly appointed Israeli manager of Chelsea, at his London hotel. Grant asked why he didn't stay another day in England so he could come to Wednesday night's game against Schalke (Chelsea won), and Olmert explained that he had to attend numerous memorial events on the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
The meeting with Erdogan was the last on Olmert's schedule on Tuesday, and he didn't talk about sports. Not even about the Israeli player in the Turkish league, Pini Balili. But on the way to the plane, at the end of a brief meeting with reporters at the airport, he couldn't resist. "They should get on the plane," he said to his aides. "We can still catch 15 minutes of the Arsenal game." The game ended with a 7-0 victory of Arsenal over Slavia Prague in the Champions League. One wonders what Brown would have had to say about it.