The Bulgarian foreign minister could not have been more friendly and supportive.
At his meeting with President Shimon Peres on Tuesday, Nikolai Mladinov expressed empathy with Israel’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear drive and stressed the critical imperative to prevent Teheran achieving a weapons capability. He also backed Israeli peace efforts with the Palestinians, highlighting the need to ensure Israel’s security and prosperity.
But if those were fairly typical diplomatic formulations, Mladinov went further. He stressed that Bulgaria, which he said had been fortunate enough to see the salvation of most of its Jews from the Nazis, was a true friend of Israel – the kind of ally who is there not only when it is convenient, “but during the true hour of need.” He spoke of his country’s “strong emotional connection to Israel” and the responsibility felt by Bulgaria “to ensure Israel’s safety and its future.”
Constructively echoing the bleak “If Israel goes down, we all go down” sentiments expressed in a London Times
op-ed article last week by the former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, Mladinov declared that “Israel’s security affects Europe’s security and Bulgaria’s security... Sofia and Tel Aviv are not that far apart from each other.”
Israel is being lambasted and demonized internationally as rarely before. The rush to viciously critical judgment of Israel last month, before the facts of the flotilla interception were known, underlined the increasingly widespread international disinclination to give Israel the benefit of the doubt when assessing its behavior. Economic and cultural boycott actions are spreading like a rash.
At such a time, to hear a serving European foreign minister express such positive sentiments is welcome, indeed. And it highlighted the importance of Israel’s laudable efforts in recent years to devote serious attention to potential European partners – essential partners in these troubled times.
The realization that Europe often serves as a kind of global barometer of legitimacy in international affairs dawned some years ago in Jerusalem, and several prime and foreign ministers, including the incumbents, have rightly invested themselves in broadening the dialogue with key European players.
Relatively speaking, Israel has enjoyed partnerships with something of a dream team in Western Europe of late – with the firmly Israel-supporting Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy might not fall into quite the same category, but he certainly considers himself a friend and he too joined the Western European delegation that came to Israel on a leadership solidarity mission at the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead.
Quiet, sustained interaction with Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria has also yielded deepened understanding, of the type exemplified by Mladinov’s comments.
This European outreach is all the more valuable given the tensions in ties between Jerusalem and Washington over the past year or so. The fact that at least part of Europe is fairly sympathetic to Israel’s cause is a vital asset for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to take with him to Washington next week.
Indeed, it is a measure of how troubled and complex the Israel-US relationship has become that Europe – where support for Israel once paled by comparison with Bush’s instinctive solidarity – is now touted by Jerusalem as so important.
WHAT JERUSALEM has gradually internalized, as Netanyahu sets off for that critical meeting with Barack Obama, is the extent to which this president is ideologically committed to bringing America closer to the heart of international consensus – reversing what he perceives as the untenable relative isolation of the country he inherited from president George W. Bush.
The assessment in Jerusalem, indeed, is that Bush had no qualms whatsoever in defying international conventional wisdoms where he felt the necessity – indeed, that he saw such foreign policy independence as a sign of American leadership. President Bill Clinton was not quite as ready to play the maverick. And Obama has made plain a greater desire to work within the international diplomatic and legal forums wherever possible.
Hence, goes the thinking here, the president’s reluctance to torpedo UN moves toward an international inquiry into the flotilla interception, and the effort instead to work toward some kind of compromise on the modalities of the investigation – to Israel’s dismay.
Hence, too, to Israel’s still greater dismay, the American refusal to walk away from May’s Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference even as it obsessively and ridiculously twisted its focus away from global nuclear villain Iran to demonstratively dependable Israel. In 2005, Bush essentially washed his hands of the NPT review conference in order to protect Israel; in 2010, Obama stayed put, pushed unsuccessfully for a final document that would not harm Israel, and lamented the Israel-bashing result. As everyone from rookie real estate agents to ultra-sharp business moguls knows, when your adversaries can gauge that you’re not going to walk away from the deal, your leverage is gone and your capacity to steer things your way is lost.
Nevertheless, facing what Ambassador Michael Oren described to The Jerusalem Post
last week as the “tectonic shift” in America’s foreign policy outlook, and given the top priority Israel necessarily attaches to the imperative to thwart Iran, Netanyahu will set out for Washington well aware that Israel simply cannot afford a collapse in its relationship with its key ally, even if that ally has become somewhat less reliable.
In Netanyahu’s circle, it is confidently stated that Iran will be the key issue on the agenda for the visit, and there are some who want to suggest that matters relating to the Palestinians – including the vexed issue of whether the prime minister will extend the 10-month settlement moratorium – may not come to a head.
This analysis seems wildly wrongheaded, and it is emphatically not shared by several members of the government’s inner “septet.”
More dovish figures such as Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor are urging Netanyahu, therefore, to come to the White House with constructive proposals; Barak declared on Monday that an “assertive” Israeli diplomatic plan was vital to the maintenance of the US-Israel “special security relationship.”
More hawkish figures like Moshe Ya’alon fear that the prime minister will capitulate to US pressure, while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s idea of constructive proposals, as set out in his op-ed in these pages last week, are not the kind Netanyahu has any intention of advancing.
While Lieberman may think differently, Netanyahu knows that there is no substitute for strong Israeli-American ties. But traveling to Washington with a considerable amount of common ground in Israeli-European ties is a significant plus. It means that, for consensus-minded Obama, backing Israel is not a case of going out on a limb in the face of the entire international community.
The loss of the alliance with Turkey is a heavy blow in this context, but still, the sheer extravagant viciousness of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-Israel stance has deeply discredited the criticisms he has leveled. And the relatively strong relationship Netanyahu has cultivated with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak is a further plus. It is unfortunate that not quite the same can be said of the Israeli-Jordanian leadership relationship at present.
AHEAD OF Netanyahu’s crucial visit, Israeli ties to the US have not been enhanced by what seems to have been the deliberate misrepresentation, by one or more officials at the Foreign Ministry, of Ambassador Oren’s assessment of relations – as detailed in our diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon’s dismaying analysis (“The truth about tectonic shifts, rifts and an ambassador’s vital credibility”) on Wednesday.
The prime minister will also be setting out in the midst of an undignified public spat with Lieberman over the dispatch of Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to try to salvage our relations with Turkey. This was a move that both undermined the foreign minister and illustrated the familiar dysfunctionality of Israel’s foreign policy.
Remarkably, too, Israel also found a new way to shoot itself in the foot, albeit with only minor repercussions, prior to the prime minister’s departure.
Bulgaria’s Mladinov was joined in Israel this week by other visiting European dignitaries, including his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. But the visits of all three were blighted by Foreign Ministry staffers, who instituted work sanctions in ill-directed support of eminently reasonable pay demands.
Thus Lavrov and Lieberman were forced to hold their joint press
conference at the King David Hotel rather than at the ministry, Ilves
had to cancel a wreath-laying cemetery at Herzl’s tomb, his wife was
left without a car to bring her back from a restaurant in Abu Ghosh,
and the admirable Mladinov was also initially left car-less, at Yad
None of these undiplomatic incidents remotely constitutes a
catastrophe. But the readiness to disrupt the visits of important
foreign dignitaries in the cause of an internal pay dispute is
symptomatic of the wider malaise.
A Channel 2 news story detailing some of these embarrassments concluded
with the reporter’s assertion that the Foreign Ministry workers have
evidently recognized that the only thing this government understands
are threats and a resort to forceful action.
Another conclusion might be that even those whose very job is to
advance Israel’s international well-being – employers and employees
alike – have lost sight of the national interest. For how else could
they allow themselves to sabotage even those who are standing out as
friends during what is, indeed, a “true hour of need”?