Diplomacy: Wasted energy?

Hugs with Prodi and Merkel aside, Olmert's mission in Europe was contaminated by his nuclear blooper.

Olmert-Merkel 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert-Merkel 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In light of all the wariness with which the Israeli public views Europe and its Middle Eastern policy, a candid moment caught by a Channel 10 film crew of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's going over "talking points" with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi before a press conference in Rome on Wednesday is telling. After a set photo-opportunity at a government guest house in Rome, when Prodi and Olmert thought they were no longer being filmed, a cameraman caught Olmert reminding his European colleague to talk about Europe's continued backing of the three criteria for legitimizing the PA and Italy's recognition of the Jewish character of the state. "It is important that you emphasize the three principles of the Quartet - that they are not negotiable. They are the basis for everything," Olmert told Prodi. "Please say this." Prodi nodded, and Olmert continued coaching him in the direction of recognizing the Jewish character of the state. "You [recently] said something about a Jewish state, I know that," Olmert said, referring to private comments Prodi made on the subject earlier in the month. And then, a few minutes later, almost as if on cue - and revealing an exceptional level of coordination - the two men met the press, and Prodi followed the script. "Every peace process must go through a renouncing of violence, recognition of the state of Israel, recognition of past agreements and, I must add, also the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state," he said. "Italy," Prodi said, recognized Israel as a Jewish state and also "recognized the need for there to be a continuation of this in the future." The pre-press-conference exchange, as well as what transpired at the press conference itself, indicate a level of coordination with Europe lost on an Israeli public very wary of European involvement. Unlike the public's largely skeptical view of Europe, however, Olmert has a pro-European orientation, and according to diplomatic officials in Jerusalem is arguably the most pro-European prime minister Israel has ever had. As Industry and Trade minister he came to appreciate how important Europe is economically, which makes them important politically. Whereas Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, placed all of Israel's eggs in the US basket, never really trusting the Europeans or wanting to see an increased European involvement in the region, Olmert has a different overall view, and is much less fearful of their involvement. Witness, for example, his agreement to the UNIFIL force in Lebanon as part of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Prodi, at the Rome press conference, said that there can only be peace in the region when there is both a strong US and European involvement. While Sharon or his advisers would likely have disputed this comment, this was a statement that neither Olmert nor those close to him felt merited a correction. And all of this is not lost on the Europeans. OLMERT SET out for Germany and Italy on Monday hoping to coordinate positions with these two countries, both of which indicated a strong willingness to do just that. In the next few months, they will have an even greater role in formulating EU Middle Eastern policy than in the past. Germany will take over the rotating presidency of the EU on January 1, and in the spring, Italy will take over command of UNIFIL forces in Lebanon from the French. Olmert also wanted to cement personal ties with German chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he has known for a couple of years; and with Prodi, with whom he has had a working relationship that goes back to the beginning of the decade, when Prodi was the president of the European Commission and Olmert the Ministry of Industry and Trade. The candid footage of Olmert and Prodi illustrated both coordination and a degree of "chemistry" between the two men, because this type of pre-coaching before a press conference does not take place between leaders who don't feel comfortable with one another. Israel is fearful of surprise European initiatives, and one of the things that so perturbed Jerusalem last month when Spanish Prime Minister Jos Luis Rodr guez Zapatero - seemingly out of the blue - talked publicly of a Spanish, French and Italian initiative, was that Israel was not informed in advance. (Prodi made clear that he was not party to this initiative, announcing at Wednesday's press conference that he thought it premature to talk about one of the plan's major elements - an international peace conference.) Olmert, according to diplomatic officials, believes that if there are close working relationships with key leaders, and there is coordination, then there is less likelihood of Israel's being caught by surprise. IN SUMMING up his trip, Olmert made much of the fact that Merkel came to his Berlin hotel suite for a three-hour conversation in the middle of the night, and that he and Prodi met alone for one hour. These are the types of meetings, he said, that strengthen personal relationships, and Olmert - sources close to him said - understands well the importance of these strong personal relationships in diplomacy. During a briefing with Israeli reporters in Berlin, in which he underlined the importance of the midnight meeting with Merkel, Olmert was asked whether Germany, when it takes over the EU presidency in January, was going to make any proposals to move the diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward. In a clear dig at the Spanish, whom he did not mention by name, he said that if they did, it would not be without informing Israel first. But if Olmert wants coordination with the Europeans, the Europeans want something as well - a diplomatic horizon and involvement. A senior European diplomat said that Olmert's address at Sde Boker had a significant impact on European governments who needed to hear reassurances that despite the war in Lebanon, despite the buildup of terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, despite the rockets on Sderot, there was a government in Israel that has not despaired of wanting to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. "The Europeans wanted to hear from Israel that it realized it couldn't just build a wall and throw away the key, and that it had not come to the conclusion that dialogue with the Palestinians was useless," the official said. Olmert provided that hope through his Sde Boker address, not coincidentally timed before his visit to Europe. And this helped pave the way for the coordination he discovered in Berlin and Rome. "There were no points of disagreement with the Italians," Olmert enthused after meeting Prodi. Even on the issue of Syria. Though both the Italians and the Germans favor engagement with Damascus, something Israel opposes, Israeli officials said the disagreement was one of tactics, not goals, and that Europe and Israel ultimately want the same thing: Syria's no longer supplying Hizbullah, supporting terrorism and undermining the government in Lebanon. There was also public agreement on the need to keep Iran from gaining nuclear potential, with both Merkel and Prodi giving this cardinal issue the necessary lip service. And they were both very strong in condemning the Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran. Yet neither leader committed him- or herself to curtailing their countries' massive trade with Iran, with Prodi saying that Italy would go along with European sanctions directed specifically at the nuclear program, and Merkel giving no commitments to stop government support for "risk insurance" to companies doing business with Iran. (Between the two of them, German and Italy do some $12 billion worth of business with Teheran a year.) THE BROUHAHA over Olmert's interview to the German television station, in which he did - or didn't - acknowledge an Israeli nuclear capability, moved the focus of the debate during this trip from the issue of a nuclear Iran to that of a nuclear Israel. Olmert went to Europe with many in the diplomatic community hoping he would be able to drive home to the Europeans the dangers the Iranians pose not only to Israel and the Jews, but to the Europeans as well. In the end, however, because of the Holocaust-denial conference - and the emphasis placed on condemning it - and because of Olmert's inclusion of Israel into a group of countries that has nuclear weapons, an opportunity, some officials say, was lost in directing public attention to the destabilizing role Iran is playing in the region. Instead of condemning Teheran for stoking the flames in Gaza and Lebanon, it was chastised for hosting Holocaust deniers. And instead of concentrating on the dangers for Europe of a nuclear Iran, the newspaper headlines dealt with a nuclear Israel.