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(photo credit: AP [file])
It took former prime minister Ariel Sharon four years from the time he became prime minister in 2001 to make the short trip from Jerusalem to Sharm e-Sheikh and meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
When he finally did make that journey and attended a summit on February 8, 2005 along with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah, he started his speech in the following manner: "I would like to thank you, the President of Egypt, Mr. Hosni Mubarak, on your welcome initiative and the kind hospitality for this important summit." And therein ended his references to Mubarak. No one could have accused Sharon then of exaggerated flattery.
By contrast, it took Olmert just over two months from the time he was elected to make the pilgrimage to Mubarak, a pilgrimage that former prime minister Ehud Barak also used to make at close intervals, but a practice which Sharon ended.
Like Sharon, Olmert began his set remarks at Sunday's press conference thanking Mubarak. "I thank you, Mr. President, for your invitation to meet me in Sharm e-Sheikh and the warm reception and hospitality you granted me and the delegation that came with me." But, unlike Sharon, Olmert did not stop there. Rather he went on and piled effusive - one diplomatic source in Jerusalem labeled it "embarrassingly effusive" - praise on the Egyptian president. And this effusive praise, in fact, was the one unexpected element that emerged from an otherwise pretty predictable press conference.
Olmert, as expected, talked about wanting to meet with Abbas. Olmert, as expected, talked about wanting to negotiate along the lines of the road map. Olmert, as expected, talked about wanting to work together with the Egyptians.
But unexpectedly - and drifting radically from Sharon's model - he heaped praise on Mubarak in what seemed like an attempt to win favor in the Egyptian leader's eyes. As if with every compliment Mubarak would become more favorably disposed to Olmert, or to Israel, or to both.
"President Mubarak is the most experienced statesmen in our region," Olmert said at one point. "And certainly the most experienced when it comes to contact that can lead to peace agreements."
"Allow me to say something personal," he said at another point. "Mr. President, it was personally a very emotional experience for me to sit with you for an hour-and-a-half and talk with and listen to one of the most experienced and important leaders that I have had the opportunity to meet."
And there was more: "The relationship between Egypt and Israel is very qualitative and very central to our world-view and to the types of relations we want to build in the region. The leadership of Hosni Mubarak is an important key to the success of this process."
And if anybody still had any doubts, Olmert said, "I see in you, Mr. President, a true partner to the attempts to bring peace to our region. I intend to consult and work with you closely to push forward the peace process. Your contribution is essential, just as it was during the successful disengagement plan."
What emerged from the Sharm press conference was a dramatic difference between Sharon's and Olmert's public diplomacy style. Where Sharon was understated and reserved, Olmert is overstated and effusive. Sharon needed Mubarak for his disengagement no less than Olmert needs the Egyptian president now for the success of his plans, yet Sharon's interaction with the Egyptian ruler was less deferential.
What Sharon realized was that Mubarak also needs Israel, and for that reason the praise needs to be doled out in more moderate doses.
Olmert's words also raise the question: for whom were they intended? It is questionable how much good over-the-top praise from an Israeli leader, not exactly the most popular personality in Egypt, does for Mubarak on the Egyptian street.
And if it was all meant for Washington's ears - to boost Mubarak in the eyes of the Bush administration - one could almost hear the cynical Middle East experts in the National Security Council mumbling, "Okay, Ehud, enough already, we get the point."
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