Bulgarian FM's Refusal to Meet Arafat Reflects U.S. Victory in Tug of War With EU

The United States racked up another victory against "Old Europe" this week, this time in Israel, when Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy decided not to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The United States racked up another victory against "Old Europe" this week, this time in Israel, when Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy decided not to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The U.S. and Israel both pressured Passy not to meet with Arafat, while the European Union exerted equal pressure upon him to do so. At one point, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he would not see the Bulgarian minister if the latter visited Arafat, Passy even considered canceling his trip. In the end, Passy decided to meet with neither Arafat nor Sharon. The outraged Palestinians responded by canceling all their meetings with Passy, while the EU was once again confronted with the difficulties it will face in maintaining the "old European order" once its planned enlargement eastward begins in 2004.

Haaretz's reports on these events received wide coverage in Bulgaria and did some damage to Passy. One theory has it that Passy - a proud Jew who also maintains close ties with Arab countries - wanted to meet Arafat in order to balance both his own pro-American image and that of his country, which strongly supported America's war on Iraq. With Bulgaria slated to join the EU in 2007, it feels a need to show solidarity with its new family as well.

But Passy, in an interview with Haaretz, tried to deny the whole affair. "I wanted to meet with Arafat? Who told you that?" he demanded. "Why did I boycott Sharon? I never even requested such a meeting."

"The Bulgarian government made a very clear decision - not to request any further meetings with Mr. Arafat," he continued. "We aspire to be part of the solution to the Middle East problem, not part of the problem itself."

For Israel, which recently launched a diplomatic offensive to strengthen its ties with Eastern Europe, Passy was not the only victory: The Slovakian foreign minister also declined to meet with Arafat when he came in April, and Hungary's foreign minister, who is slated to arrive in June, has already announced that he will meet only with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

There are some who say that Bulgaria's newfound closeness to the U.S. stems from the fact that it is by nature a satellite state: Once the Soviet Union's most loyal adherent, it is now adopting the same attitude toward the world's only remaining superpower. Passy indignantly rejected this theory. "Just as Israel's interests often coincide with those of the U.S., so do Bulgaria's. Over the last 13 years, we have seen eye-to-eye on many international issues - the Balkan conflicts, the Middle East, Iraq, NATO's role in the international arena and the EU's enlargement. When that is how things stand, cooperation is only natural."

Passy, a 46-year-old with a Ph.D. in mathematics, was the driving force behind his country's entry into NATO - a move whose success has been a major source of his popularity in Bulgaria. However, he does not attribute his support for the war on Iraq to Bulgaria's interest in America's security umbrella.

"It is no coincidence that the newly liberated democracies of Europe all took similar positions on the Iraqi crisis. We have a sensitivity to dictatorships. Because of this, our empathy for the suffering of the Iraqi people was much greater."

Does he accept U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's definition of the former Soviet satellites as "New Europe"?

Passy: "I relate to the phrase `New Europe' ... as merely another term for `Europe's new democracies.'" However, he adds, "in the era of globalization, a division of countries into `old' and `new' is artificial and has no terminological justification."

Some analysts believe that the East European states will act as an American "Trojan horse" within the EU. Others predict that in time, the new members will assimilate into the "old European order." What is your view?

"Globalization sometimes has effects that are hard to predict. Global security today is based on the unity of the democratic world. NATO and the EU are the two principal pillars of this world, and the proper functioning of the global democratic mechanism depends on full coordination between them. Therefore, contradictory though it might sound, the more Trojan horses are exchanged between the European and Euro-Atlantic camps, the smaller the chances of a new Trojan war breaking out between them."