All but unnoticed, and perhaps unsurprisingly so, William Hague briefly visited Israel this week.
Now 45, Hague was a British political wunderkind, marked out as a future prime minister from the ripe old age of 16, when he dazzled delegates to the 1977 Conservative Party national conference with an impossibly poised address on the incompetence of the then-Labor government.
As it turned out, Hague, though beloved of that Conservative titan Margaret Thatcher, made it to party leader but never to 10 Downing Street. The seemingly old-before-his-time head of a riven, fogeyish party, he fell to ignominious defeat in the 2001 general election that marked the second of Tony Blair's polling day successes.
Having become something of a ridiculous figure in the course of that miserable campaign - during which he tried vainly to win working-class affection by claiming implausibly to have regularly downed 14 pints of beer a day in his youth - the bruised Hague opted to try making a virtue out of failure. He risked making a complete fool of himself by accepting an invitation to act as guest presenter on one of British television's most irreverent and more unpredictable shows, Have I Got News for You, a satirical quiz based on current affairs. It was a role only a marginalized, backbench MP could have played, a role, he said this week, in wich he had to be prepared to "trash every party, every country."
In fact, Hague was a most unexpected hit. Coming across as more obviously human, even affable and self-deprecating than he had ever appeared on the campaign trail, his time in the guest host's chair marked the beginning not only of his public rehabilitation but of his political renaissance as well. This was confirmed six months ago, when he had to give up the TV gig for the best of reasons: The Conservative party's new leader, David Cameron, appointed him "shadow foreign secretary" - his party's foreign policy supremo, critic-in-chief of the British foreign secretary who faces him across the House of Commons.
All of which is why Hague was visiting Israel (for meetings with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and others), and why, given the upturn in Conservative Party fortunes of late and Britain's undeniably special relationship with the United States, his views may actually come to matter.
Blair's relatively steadfast empathy and honesty where Israel is concerned is the more virtuous because so much of Labor's rump support - notably including the trade unions, the media and no shortage of its own backbench members of parliament - is so hostile. By contrast, the Conservatives, bolstered by a strong performance in recent local elections and starting to look vaguely electable again under Cameron, have long been more widely sympathetic to Israel, with Thatcher herself a noticeable case in point.
Hague, who was last in Israel six years ago and who stressed that he was "here to learn" rather than to "promulgate Conservative party policy," did indeed express slight disquiet with the Blair government's, and the wider EU's, thinking on Hamas. The Conservatives "have a great deal of sympathy with Israel vis-a-vis Hamas," he said in a snatched telephone interview. While his party did not disagree with the British government in seeking ways "to channel aid to the Palestinians without going via Hamas," he wasn't certain that the proposed EU mechanisms would fit the bill. "We want to see how this will operate, as will become clear in the next few weeks."
Against such mild concerns, however, Hague was strikingly in step with the British government in rejecting the notion of a formal endorsement, of the kind that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would so welcome, of unilaterally set Israeli borders.
He expressed "concern" over the location and route of the West Bank security barrier, though emphasizing Israel's full right to protect its citizens, and was adamant that borders and other permanent issues could not be dictated unilaterally. There would be no formal endorsement from his direction, he made clear, for any steps that would "prejudice final status negotiations."
Tellingly for Olmert, in his quest for international endorsement of the new borders that would be produced by the "convergence" plan, a similarly adamant rejection was issued in an interview this week with the Post by the European Commission's Ambassador here, Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal.
I heard much the same negatives, too, this week, from a senior American politician who was here on a visit. And, of course, the Post's Washington correspondent, Nathan Guttman, reported ahead of Olmert's trip to the White House next week that President Bush is planning to listen to, rather than discuss, the prime minister's convergence vision. "There will be no maps and there will be no exchange of letters," in the words of Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
WHERE HAGUE did state plainly that the Conservatives "differ from the British government" was on policies for facing down Iran. "The strategy," he said in his blunt south Yorkshire tones, "is not working."
Specifically, he went on, he had been pushing the British government repeatedly in the House of Commons to follow the American lead in enacting legislation designed to address the problem of ongoing military sales to Iran by the likes of Russia. Iran is hardly going to feel the heat, he noted dryly, "when you have permanent members of the UN Security Council" selling it nuclear technology.
Put simply, Hague said, the Security Council was proving unable to constrain Iran. "If the latest diplomatic effort fails," said Hague, "there'll have to be some radical thinking."
In which direction? He preferred not to say, although he did note that the Blair government was now moving back toward the Conservatives on the question of armed intervention. "It's not that we advocate military action," he said, "but we don't think it should be taken off the table." That's precisely what the previous British foreign secretary, the recently sacked Jack Straw, had done, branding the prospect of sending in the bombers, even as a last resort, "inconceivable."
Hague cited a "range of options" he'd heard in Israel - from direct US-Iran talks to US drastic action. He was not pushing either course at present. "But this has to be grasped in some way, in months not years, more decisively," he said. "The current slight muddle of policy" - an endearingly British understatement for utter international disunity - "is not getting us anywhere at the moment... It's getting quite urgent... It was quite a surprise to the international community when Iran announced it had produced quantities of enriched uranium via its small number of centrifuges. It is moving quite quickly, and that's the Israeli view too."
Indeed the Israeli view, as communicated to me by a senior diplomatic official this week, is disturbingly similar to Hague's - that time is running out, and that the current "slight muddle of policy" is disastrous.
This Israeli official proved entirely adept at explaining the failure - why Moscow, most importantly, is torpedoing efforts to turn the diplomatic and economic screws on Teheran. "This is Russia demonstrating that it is a major player, that major world issues require its involvement, that it's a superpower too," he said. "And it's also about money. Putin is out of a job in a couple of years and there are billions of dollars to be made in those sales to Iran. So Russia is dragging its feet, but not breaking bridges, and the US and EU don't quite know how to handle this."
He was entirely capable, too, of making predictions - to the effect that "I think we'll get to where the US and EU want to get eventually" on imposing sanctions, with the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in July possibly a key forum.
The trouble is that, like Hague, this Israeli official conveyed a strong sense that even the sanctions road, once eventually taken, can't really work. "The question is whether this will be too slow," he said gloomily, noting that "Sanctions take so long to kick in. Cuba has endured them for 60 years and Castro has buried, what, seven presidents? Apartheid South Africa? We don't have 15-20 years with the Iranians."
Again, American politicians and analysts with whom I've spoken recently also convey the disturbing sense that the combination of a weak, unpopular President Bush, deeply embroiled in Iraq, and a muddled, disunited international community will prove incapable of resolute action.
If so, however appalling and unthinkable the prospect, one day in the not too distant future, to borrow the name of that Hague-rehabilitating TV satire, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will get up before his people and those of a regrettably impotent international community and declare gleefully of his nuclear quest: "Have I got news for you."