Diplomacy: Olmert's eclipse in Paris

The beleagured premier was upstaged by Assad and Sarkozy at this week's Mediterranean summit.

assad paris 224 88  ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad paris 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
It was a tale of three leaders, set in Paris. Two on the up-and-up, the other spiraling downward. And the contrast was downright jarring. The first leader was France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. The ever-active Sarkozy, who in his diplomatic hyperactivity brings to mind the Eveready Bunny, was all smiles as he welcomed 43 of the world's leaders to Paris for a summit. At times looking like a giddy birthday boy who just got the biggest piece of the birthday cake. Sarkozy personally greeted each and every leader, pumped each of their hands, hosted them for meals, and made high-sounding speeches about peace and fraternity. Sarkozy planned the summit, which launched the Union for the Mediterranean, to coincide with Bastille Day. In that way, after a day of meetings, the leaders who would stay on could sit together at the top of Champs-Elysees and watch French power parade down the wide, leafy boulevard. And it really was a spectacle. There was the Republican Guard's 1st Infantry Regiment, and the Casablanca attack submarine crew, and the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment, all in their colorful finery, looking oh-so typically French. Some with capes, some with sabers, some with red plumes on their helmets. Overhead flew the Mirage-based might of the French Air Force, trailing tricolor smoke. And as classical music was broadcast from speakers along the avenue, huge black bombs followed green and black tanks up the street, moving away from the Arc de Triomphe. Military parades elicit mixed emotions. On the one hand they are, simply put, "really cool." All those smartly dressed soldiers marching in synch, carrying their rifles, lined up according to height in rows 15-across, helmets shimmering in the sun, arms waving in unison, sabers pointed upward, red striped pants, white socks. It's colorful, and - were one a Frenchman - this parade would have elicited pride. Yet on the other hand the blatantly militaristic nature of it all leaves one a bit uneasy. There is something a bit off-putting about folks applauding as bombs are wheeled down the avenue. Military parades are meant to project power. When foreign dignitaries are not in the grandstand watching, they project power to the tens of thousands of countrymen lining the streets. The parades send a message to the people on their national days saying, "You can be proud and secure, look at our strength." But when the foreign dignitaries are there to watch as well, and more than a dozen stayed on to watch on Monday, there is another message as well: "Look at our strength, we cannot be ignored." And, indeed, that seemed to be the overriding message Sarkozy was trying to project over the weekend: France is back, it's strong, it's confident and it's smack-dab in the center of the world's stage. In diplomatic terms, what Sarkozy staged was a bit of a coup. He, the president of France, got a whole slew of European and Middle East leaders - a few of them not exactly on the greatest terms, like leaders of Israel and Syria, Algeria and Morocco - to sit together around one table at a party he hosted. Never mind that nothing substantive really came of the meeting, for Sarkozy the meeting itself was enough to coronate him as one of the world's leaders. And then there was Syria's Bashar Assad, oddly the star of the show. Assad, the supporter of terrorism; Assad, the Iranian ally; Assad, one of the charter members of the axis of evil. He was featured in numerous print and television interviews over his long weekend in Paris, and took pains to project the image of a reasonable man. Paris was Assad's coming out party, after three years of banishment that begin with the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an assassination in which Syria has been implicated. It was former French president Jacques Chirac who essentially sent Assad to his room by cutting off ties with him, and it was now Sarkozy who was bringing him back to the dinner table. Ironically, Israel helped pave the way. Had Israel not announced two months back that it was holding indirect talks with the Syrians, one diplomatic official conceded, it would have been difficult for Sarkozy to invite Assad to Paris. But once it was clear that Israel was talking to the Syrians through the Turks, and in fact wanted to talk to Damascus directly, Sarkozy could say, "If it is good enough for Israel, it is good enough for us." Granted, Assad's "coming out" did not only have to do with Israel. The Syrian leader's backing of the Doha agreement that put an end to the political turmoil in Lebanon played a huge role in bringing him back into Europe's good graces. But Israel, too, played a role. The assessments for months in Jerusalem have been that Assad was more interested in a peace process than in peace, that the process itself served his interests, because through it he will receive entree again into the West. Or, at least, part of the West. Though obviously relishing the attention showered on him in Paris, for Assad, Sarkozy is only the second prize. The true trophy is the US, which has adamantly refused to follow the herd and pander to the Syrians. But it is American cuddling that Assad really wants. The French are nice, but the Americans are the important actors. He is demanding US participation in his talks with Israel, and even indicated that direct talks won't start until the US is on board. And all that, he realizes, will have to wait until after the US elections, because it is clear that the Bush administration is not going to change its Syria policy. And then there is Ehud Olmert. If it was visible in Paris that Sarkozy's and Assad's stars were on the rise, it was equally perceptible that Olmert's was on the eclipse. At the onset of the military spectacle, Sarkozy paraded down the Champs Elysees in an open-air jeep, waving to the crowd who cheered and "oohhed" and "ahhed" as he went past. His jeep was both preceded, and followed, by steel-helmeted, red-plumed cavalrymen playing a fanfare on brass instruments. Olmert must have looked on with envy at the honor paid the French leader. What a contrast to his own position. Olmert went to Paris Saturday night, just a day after revelations hit the press about allegations of double dipping for trips abroad. And from the very outset, it was clear that this time there would be no chance of maintaining a business as usual posture, because - of course - business was very much not as usual. Business as usual would have meant that Olmert, as prime ministers traveling abroad have done for years, would have set aside an hour to brief the traveling press. It didn't happen. Not only did that not happen, but the only time he spoke with reporters was for about two minutes on his plane before taking off, when he said he was looking forward to the meetings in Paris, and that the police investigators were wronging both him and his family. Then he went back to the front of the plane, taking no questions. Olmert went through the motions in Paris, meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Sarkozy, the emir of Qatar, Italian President Silvio Berlusconi and UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon. But it seemed to be just that, going through the motions. His aides tried to say all would be all right, that the corruption affairs would likely end without an indictment, but it was not clear even they believed it anymore. In a week of powerful, sometimes disturbing images - such as the black coffins of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, or the feting of Samir Kuntar in Beirut - the one image that summed up Olmert's position was a photo carried in papers around the world of Olmert, holding up his hands, facing the turned back of Assad. That photo said it all. Assad could turn his back on Olmert, because Olmert is yesterday's leader. The country's current dilemma is that it is not clear when, or even how, tomorrow will begin.