Diplomacy: Visitation rites

Olmert's government's policy seems to be guided simply by the goal of surviving.

olmert rice jlem 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert rice jlem 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
It's nearly impossible these days to get any senior Israeli diplomatic officials to publicly say anything positive about Ban Ki-moon, who will make his maiden journey to our shores as UN secretary-general on Saturday night. Ironically, however, this isn't because they don't have anything good to say about the former South Korean foreign minister. They do. But they don't want to say it too loudly, lest Israel kiss him to death. Ban's arrival will set into motion a heavy diplomatic week that will also see the Sunday arrival of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - now expected in the region about once a month - and the convening on Wednesday of the Arab League summit in Riyadh, which in one form or another is expected to recommit itself to a land-and-refugees-for-peace formula. Rice is a well-known quantity, and her visits seem intended as much to inch some kind of diplomatic process forward as they are to show heavy US involvement - if for no other reason than to keep others, such as the EU and Russia, from meddling too heavily. And, quite frankly, that situation is currently to Israel's liking. A year to the week after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won the elections and promised a realignment that would fundamentally change the reality on the ground, the government's policy now seems defined to a large extent by trying to bide its time and do as little self-inflicted damage as possible in the process. Rice's visit helps bide time, while giving the impression of movement. This strategy is the product of a policy that rests on the firm belief that the new PA government cannot be dealt with, that Hamas is firmly in charge and has not changed one iota, and that something dramatic needs to change for the overall situation to radically change. Confused? Join a club that includes the Israeli government, the PA government - which is talking out of both sides of its mouth - the US administration and the Europeans, who are merrily meeting with non-Hamas government ministers, but continuing to officially shun the PA government. When is a boycott not a boycott? (The Americans, truth be told, are also pursuing the same policy, only much less merrily.) Biding time until something changes is, therefore, the name of the game. As to what would constitute a dramatic change? Four possibilities come to mind: the reignition of the intra-Palestinian violence between Hamas and Fatah; a terror attack that would necessitate a massive incursion into Gaza; new elections in Israel; the emergence of a new Palestinian leader (perhaps the release of Marwan Barghouti). And it is deep into this confused and confusing situation that the rookie UN secretary-general will wade this week. Over the last seven days, Ban - in a report on the implementation of the Security Council's cease-fire resolution in Lebanon (1701) and in comments regarding the new PA unity government - has said things that are fundamentally pleasing to the Israeli diplomatic ear. Not everything he has said has been pleasing, but there has been enough there to lead some to private talk of a breath of fresh air coming out of Turtle Bay. For instance, Ban, who took over as UN chief from Kofi Annan on January 1, delivered his first report to the Security Council on Saturday on implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701. And while it is true that he took Israel to task for an increase in flights over Lebanon and for failure to transfer information on cluster bombs, he also gave validity to its repeated claims that weapons were being smuggled into Lebanon from Syria. Regarding the arms smuggling, Ban said "the Security Council may wish to consider supporting an independent assessment mission to consider the monitoring of the border." Although to normal ears this doesn't sound like much, it is an acknowledgment of Israel's claims. Why would an independent assessment mission be needed if nothing were happening? In very diplomatic language, he also pointed a finger at Syria and Iran. "I would also strongly urge all member states, in particular Syria, other regional states and Iran, to do all they can to ensure the provisions of Resolution 1701 are fully respected." The upshot is that these countries were not respecting those provisions. Is this a pro-Israeli slam dunk? Well, not exactly. But granting important validity to Israel's claims and singling out Iran and Syria are no trifling matters. For months Israel has been alerting the international community that weapons continued to pour into Lebanon from Syria. The problem was that Israel consistently balked when it came time to show the intelligence information bearing this out. It did not want to compromise sensitive information. But lacking that information, the world did not take the claims too seriously. But two weeks ago, when a UN delegation was in the area preparing for Ban's report - and after months of internal wrangling between the defense officials who wanted to keep the information classified and diplomats who wanted it to be shared - some of the intelligence was released. The argument that won out, at least temporarily, was that Israel would gain more by being diplomatically proactive in sharing the information and stopping the smuggling, than facing a situation in which the smuggling continued unimpeded. "Over the last few weeks, the government of Israel has provided a series of detailed intelligence briefings to senior UN representatives, which indicate serious breaches of the arms embargo across the Lebanese-Syrian border," Ban told the Security Council. "The briefings included a specific example of a reported arms shipment to Hizbullah in early January across the Lebanese-Syrian border. The date, exact times and names of places in which this reported incident took place were shared with UN officials." Ban said that while the information was "more detailed than that previously shown to the United Nations," its authentication required independent military assessment. Nevertheless, his acknowledgement of the problem was viewed in Jerusalem as a not insignificant achievement. On Monday Ban struck again, giving an interview to Voice of America Television that demonstrated that the UN was closer in the Quartet to the American position than the emerging European one regarding the new PA government. He said the initial report coming from the unity government seems to be "a little bit disappointing." This contrasted mightily with statements from certain European governments praising the new PA government and talking as if it heralded the dawn of a bright new day. Ban was more circumspect. "They [the PA government] have not clearly stated they will abide by these three principles," he said, referring to the Quartet's demands that the new government recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous agreements. "I urge th at the national unity government will surely adhere to and respect principles laid out by the Quartet," he said. "It is important that parties concerned should respect the right to exist, particularly Israel's, and engage in dialogue without resorting to violence, and also respect all previous agreed international agreements and principles." But this comment, like his remarks on the arms smuggling, was not met by any public Israeli applause. Again, because of the fear of crushing him in a bear hug. THE PHILOSOPHY guiding the reticence is simple: Anybody, or anything, that Israel likes or wants, the Arab world dislikes or doesn't want. Paranoia? Maybe. But consider the following. Last month Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a Palestinian newspaper interview that the Arab League summit should drop the article calling for the return of the refugees from its peace initiative for it to palatable for Israel. It didn't take more than a couple days for Amr Moussa, the league's secretary-general, to say proudly that the initiative would not be changed and that the Arabs would not be dictated to. It's highly unlikely that this article will now be discarded at Riyadh. Ban, incidentally, will be going to Saudi Arabia to attend the summit. Israel will be carefully monitoring his words to the Arabs, both regarding the summit and the controversial refugee clause, but also regarding whether he addresses other issues, such as the situation in Darfur. This week, Ban will engage in his most delicate balancing act since coming to office. On the one hand, he is obviously interested in building up trust with Israel, as indicated by his recent remarks. But on the other, his "parliament" is the UN General Assembly - the body that hires him and could fire him. He needs to consider the sensitivities of this body dominated by the Arab and non-aligned block that doesn't exactly have an overabundance of sensitivity to Israel's positions. Pay close attention to what he says this week here and in Riyadh, to get an indication of just how adroit a tightrope walker he really is.