The Talk of the Town

PARIS - Two hours before he flew back to Israel from the Paris conference, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. During the course of the meeting, phone calls began coming in from Israel with updates on the uproar in the Knesset surrounding the appointments of Eli Aflalo as absorption minister and Ruhama Avraham Balila as tourism minister.

"What happened?" asked Ban, upon seeing the notes that were being passed to Olmert. "Is it serious?" he inquired.

"Not really," replied Olmert with a smile. By the time he boarded the plane for the flight back to Israel, Olmert had already succeeded in extinguishing that day's crisis, which only two hours earlier had seemed like an existential threat to his government.

Israel was represented at the Paris conference by two leaders - Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. From the flight to Paris to the flight back to Israel, the two delegations communicated only when it was absolutely necessary for work purposes. Smiles were hardly seen anywhere. In light of Olmert's precarious political situation, Livni has pulled out all the stops in her race against him.

Olmert's advisers believe the media have conspired against him, publishing only bad or embarrassing pictures of the prime minister. On the flight back to Israel, Olmert did not come out to talk to the reporters, who had to content themselves with a briefing from his advisers. "Why not go out to them?" suggested one adviser.

"Forget it. It doesn't make any difference what he says - they will make him look bad either way," replied another.

Even on this trip, which lacked any practical agenda - apart from photo ops - Olmert managed to come out looking badly. The pictures that came in from the French capital depicted him as trying to court Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the latter turning his back on him time after time.

Olmert's advisers were angry. "No such thing," they said and offered the following version: "Time after time, the French, the UN secretary general and others came to us," they said. "All of them asked, 'do you want us to introduce you to each other?' But Olmert gave all of them the same reply and said, 'drop it. I don't want to embarrass anybody.'"

Even if Olmert wasn't trying to "court" Assad, and the pictures were misleading, Syria's behavior at the conference was yet another instance in which Israel was exploited for Assad's purposes. To the extended Israeli hand, the Syrians responded with a hasty retreat from any Israeli who came within 10 meters of them in the conference hall. The Syrians received international legitimization, and Israel again received not even a crumb.

But even if the Syrians rejoiced in the streets of Paris at Israel's expense, they may still have understood it's a lot nicer in Europe than in Tehran. If Assad had a swell time in Paris, that doesn't present a problem for Olmert. On the contrary, let him sense the advantages. Things must also be examined with an eye toward the bigger picture: Israel's freedom to engage in military action in the region in the coming months, especially in the light of increasing talk of a possible Israeli attack on Iran. A Syrian president whose wife can go shopping again in Saint Michel and Saint Germain is not going to be in any rush to join an Iranian military adventure.

One of the housekeeping people at the Ritz Hotel in Paris has an essential job: He sprays the carpeted halls with high quality scent from a shiny, stainless steel canister. At that same luxury hotel, the Egyptian delegation headed by President Hosni Mubarak also took up residence this week. His aides are always smiling, always prepared to tell a clever joke.

"You see that fellow with the scent?" one of them said. "We should send him over to the Grand Hotel - the fellow there also deserves to smell pleasant air so that he doesn't suffocate from so many hugs."

By "the fellow there," he meant Assad, the Syrian president who managed to steal the show not only from Olmert but also from the president of Egypt, the joint chairman of Paris Summit for the Mediterranean that was initiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy under the auspices of the European Union. "It drives me crazy the way you people build an Arab leader," said the Egyptian. "We have had a peace agreement for 30 years now, and you see us as a suspicious state. The Syrians hold indirect negotiations with you, they don't shake your hands, they don't talk to your reporters and you are already falling in love with them. You haven't just fallen in love - you are granting them a new status. Thanks to you, in a little while [United States President George W.] Bush will invite Assad to Washington. Don't get me wrong. We are in favor of peace between Israel and Syria. At long last we will be able to prove what [Anwar] Sadat said and did. He got the occupied Egyptian land back decades before Syria. He realized that peace is the only way not only to get territories but also to advance our country. The senior Assad also understood 'the basic requirements of peace,' as he always used to say. The question is whether Assad junior really knows what the requirements of peace are, whether he will agree to having Israelis roam the market in Damascus and whether he will be able to conduct negotiations with Hezbollah about quiet on the southern border of Lebanon the way we conduct with Hamas about a cease-fire."

'Empty words'

Not very long after this conversation, Mubarak took his seat next to Sarkozy and had to answer a question from an Arab journalist. "Doesn't the participation by Arab countries in a conference at which Israel is also present mean normalization between the Arab countries and Israel?"

Mubarak turned thunderous and scornful. "Those are empty words," he scolded the questioner. "Anyone who wants to can have normalization with Israel and anyone who doesn't want to, needn't. We have relations of peace with Israel," asserted Mubarak.

And then came another question that annoyed the president. "What do you have to say about Bashar Assad not being present during Olmert's speech?"

"Maybe he had an appointment," replied Mubarak, "and anyway the speeches are printed up and Assad can read Olmert's speech, so there is no problem."

Sarkozy, incidentally, was annoyed by the question as to why the king of Morocco wasn't there, and went to all lengths to explain that Morocco was indeed represented, even if its king hadn't shown up. (As though the entire legitimacy of the Mediterranean conference depended on the Moroccan presence.) There was, in fact, a considerable measure of schadenfreude in seeing how the countries of the developed world, the white, Christian world, were making an effort to obtain legitimization from the developing world, at a conference aimed at keeping another developing country, Turkey, out of the European Union.

Normalization with Israel is a matter of venue, not geography. For example, at the Grand Hotel a correspondent for Syrian television had no problem asking a Haaretz reporter what was happening in Israel, and she also inquired as to Olmert's standing. Altogether it seemed as though the orders to the Syrian reporters were flexible, relative to previous events at which Syrian journalists were simply stricken dumb every time an Israeli reporter tried to normalize relations with them. But when a correspondent for the Beirut newspaper Al Nahar is asked a question, he panics. "You know the situation," he says. "The Syrians will accuse us of normalizing relations with you and you do after all know the law - we are forbidden to interview or to be interviewed by Israelis. We'll talk later, when there aren't so many Syrians nearby."

Between the Lebanese reporter, the Syrian reporter and the Israeli reporter one open question remained hanging in the air: How is it that Hezbollah to this day has not said a single word about the peace process between Syria and Israel? Can it condemn Egypt for the peace agreement when Syria itself is angling for such a deal?

And other question also remained unresolved: "To the honorable foreign minister of Syria, do the negotiations between Syria and Israel mean Lebanon is also allowed to negotiate with Israel now?" Walid Moallem does not answer, does not look at the questioner and not a single muscle in his face moves.

"Don't worry," says a senior European diplomat who is familiar with the details of the negotiations between Israel and Syria. "If Syria moves ahead in negotiations with Israel, in the end Lebanon will also move ahead. The problem is that I suspect that Syria will get stuck at the place it has got to, and not just because of Syria. With whom exactly do you want Syria to continue the process?"

Miguel Moratinos, the Spanish Foreign Minister who has already clocked a lot of mileage in the attempt to bring Syria closer to Israel tells Haaretz that "the sides have never been so close to direct talks."

At the stalactite cave in the Elah Valley, a stalactite and a stalagmite are so close to each other, really just half a finger apart. How long, we once asked the guide in the cave, will it take the two to meet?

"Maybe a thousand years and maybe a million years," replied the guide.