In an overheated, gilded Kremlin room with a distinctly red motif, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Russian President Vladimir Putin put their vastly different interpersonal styles on public display on Wednesday.
Olmert - chummy, flattering and animated; Putin - cold, understated and stiff. Olmert, the back-slapping good old-boy; Putin, the frigid former KGB operative.
Putin lived up to all the spymaster stereotypes when he stood completely motionless next to Olmert for some 10 minutes while the prime minister delivered his statement following their meeting. He didn't move, fidget, nod or smile, even when Olmert looked in his direction to see if he responded to an attempt at humor; even when he heard himself flattered profusely - something Olmert is in the habit of doing when he meets a world leader, be it Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or US President George W. Bush, Japan's Junichiro Koizumi or France's Jacques Chirac.
When Olmert talked about how Israel must take Iran's threats to destroy it very seriously, Putin's face revealed nothing. Not a trace of understanding, not a sign of empathy.
But the most uncomfortable part of the event came when Olmert tried to crack a joke, making a lighthearted reference to a recent soccer match - the preliminaries for the 2008 Euro cup - where Israel played Russia to a surprising 1-1 draw in Moscow. Sports humor is common repartee among leaders. Ariel Sharon used to frequently draw laughs when mentioning a soccer or basketball game while sharing the podium with a Silvio Berlusconi from Italy, or a Tony Blair from Britain.
"We are marking a historic date today," Olmert said, "15 years since the re-establishment of ties with Russia. During these years the relations between the countries developed in many spheres - the diplomatic, economic, science, technology and even athletic. I want you to know, Mr. President, that in Israel we are very appreciative that in the sphere of sports, at least when it comes to soccer, you did not demonstrate convincing superiority over us."
Olmert, as did many in the room, looked at Putin for some kind of reaction. But Putin stood there sphinx-like, as if Olmert's words in Hebrew were not translated for him, or that the translator mistranslated and Olmert had said something of utmost earnestness.
Putin proved he was neither Berlusconi nor Blair and was not amused by banter, would have none of it. Maybe, one journalist quipped, he just doesn't like soccer. But don't be fooled, this doesn't mean that the Russian president has no sense of humor. He does, at least when it is Israeli, not Russian honor, being impugned.
In by far the most surprising exchange of the visit, Putin - at the end of an opening photo opportunity with Olmert - asked the prime minister to send regards to President Moshe Katsav.
"He surprised us," Putin said of Katsav in words picked up by a microphone before the sound was shut off.
Then, according to one official who heard the rest of the exchange, Putin said: "We didn't know he could deal with 10 women." To which Olmert reportedly replied, "I wouldn't be jealous of him."
Putin, it seems after all, does have a sense of humor; it just matters whose ox is being gored.
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