Diplomacy: PM aware of irony in selling realignment

Olmert is acutely sensitive to suggestions that he's overdoing the push for world support.

ehud olmert 88 (photo credit: )
ehud olmert 88
(photo credit: )
While the headlines in Israel this week were dominated by the Kassam rockets falling on Sderot and the violence in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was thousands of kilometers away in both space and time. On his five-day visit to London and Paris, Olmert talked publicly as if it were June 2006, paying lip service to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac about negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But in his heart, Olmert is already deep into 2007, when he hopes the world will have realized that there is no partner on the Palestinian side and will have given Israel carte blanche to control its destiny and determine its permanent borders. It will only be possible to judge whether the trip was a success, then, when it is apparent whether Europe indeed gave Israel a free hand. Until then, no one will be able to challenge Olmert when he says that all his meetings in Europe were positive and that, behind closed doors, every leader understood what Israel might have to do next year. Olmert's first objective in selling the realignment plan internationally was to build a personal relationship with the world leaders he will need to have on his side later on. He made an effort to pull at the heartstrings of every leader - in the way most suited to each. For instance, Olmert made a point of calling Chirac "one of the world's great fighters against anti-Semitism" while cameras were rolling, causing the normally stoic French leader to grin. In his meeting with US President George W. Bush, Olmert alternated between international diplospeak and baseball banter at the appropriate moments. Olmert seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, even as he sweltered in the boiling-hot 10 Downing Street with no air conditioning, and chitchatted with the notoriously argumentative Chirac, who had infamously refused to serve a glass of water to Binyamin Netanyahu when the latter visited Paris as prime minister. The international diplomacy that former prime minister Ariel Sharon tolerated at best and resented at worst comes naturally for Olmert, who was criticized during his decade as Jerusalem mayor for spending nearly as much time touring international capitals as he did his own capital in the Jewish state. The irony of an Israeli prime minister crossing the globe to persuade world leaders to allow him to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank was not lost on Olmert. In his meeting with Blair, he said that had the British leader been told years ago that an Israeli prime minister wanted to withdraw from 90 percent of the territories, he would have called it a miracle. But Olmert is hypersensitive when he is questioned about whether he is going too far in his efforts to facilitate international backing for the pullout. "I didn't beg anyone," Olmert told The Jerusalem Post in a briefing following his meeting with Blair. "I presented an opinion that we need to withdraw, to end the intolerable sojourn [in the West Bank] that threatens the Jewish majority in Israel. We are not begging anyone. We are not a nation of beggars. We are a strong country that is respected by the world." It is this "world respect" Olmert is banking on to make his realignment plan a success. Only if world leaders allow Israel to annex the West Bank settlement blocs will he be able to give the settlers a carrot along with the proverbial stick. Olmert mocked the British media for portraying realignment as a land grab. The Daily Telegraph referred to it as "Olmert's annexation plan," and the BBC's Jeremy Bowen asked him how he could justify holding on to parts of the West Bank and Jordan Valley. "There is no Zionist plot here, as you might be inclined to argue," Olmert told British parliamentarians. "There is an honest, real will on my part to give a lot and receive little in return. This will also be done following an honest, real effort to exhaust the diplomatic process." Olmert's aides said that even in closed circles when the foreign press isn't looking, the prime minister does not talk about trying to keep as much of the West Bank as possible. They said that unlike Olmert, Sharon believed that if he were allowed to draw the border, he would succeed in keeping more of the settlements that he built than any other Israeli leader potentially could. But aides who worked with both men said the irony of the transfer of power from Sharon to Olmert is that Olmert's experience and skills in international diplomacy could result in Israel keeping more of the West Bank than would have been possible under Sharon. Olmert himself shuns such comparisons with his predecessors. He also resents it when the international reception for realignment is contrasted with that of disengagement under Sharon. When reporters questioned why the international enthusiasm for disengagement has not repeated itself with realignment, Olmert pleaded for patience and reminded them that disengagement also required a lengthy diplomatic sales pitch. "I think it's na ve to expect all the leaders of the world to stand and pledge allegiance to the plan," Olmert said. Now that the first stage of that sales pitch has been completed, Olmert will have to wait and see whether the international support he hoped to acquire for the plan this week will be there at the moment of truth.