Interesting Times: Olmert's obsequiousness

His need to praise every leader and declare every meeting a success is putting the nation at risk.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Seeing the pictures of the German and Israeli cabinets meeting in Jerusalem this week, the image that crossed my mind was of boxers hugging in the ring. Boxers seem to hug during a fight to gain a brief respite. A fighter who hugs can't punch, but neither can the fighter who is being hugged. But Germany and Israel are friends, not fighters, you might protest. I agree. I have trouble understanding the objections of Labor Knesset member Shelly Yacimovich to German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to the Knesset in German. Either we have deep, friendly relations with Germany, or we do not. Germans do not pretend that they have no connection to their grandparents' generation, and continue to accept responsibility for the Holocaust. What matters is not the language that Germans speak, but what they say and do. They have come in friendship and full of ideas to deepen the military, economic and cultural relations between our two countries. Yet all this hugging seems designed to prevent us from asking them to do what they will not do, which is to lead. As Merkel explained Germany's Iran policy in her press conference with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, "We support a policy which unites as many partners as possible in the world. The result is that the process often moves forward slowly, but I believe that this is the right path and that there is no substitute." In other words, it is important to stop Iran from going nuclear, but even more important for Germany not to be too out of step with Russia and China, or with the rest of Europe. The multilateralist impulse is, of course, strong throughout Europe. To Europeans, but particularly to Germans, nationalism and particularism are like alcohol to an alcoholic: They must not be touched at all because of the bitter experience of where all that leads. THERE IS, however, a small problem with hyper-multilateralism: the West's enemies don't believe in it, and are happy to take full advantage of the West's willingness to, indeed belief in hamstringing itself. This creates a bitter irony: the exact impulse designed to keep Europe's totalitarian demons at bay lets these same demons gather and romp outside Europe with impunity. This is not how it was supposed to be. Multilateralism, according to the United Nations Charter, was supposed to become a tool to prevent and address international aggression, not to protect aggressors. Multilateralism was never meant to become an end in itself, but a means to a safer, freer world. Merkel may be right that there is "no substitute" for multilateralism, but there certainly is a substitute for the self-defeating variety that Germany has adopted and that imperils both Germany and Israel. The multilateral principle is no excuse for German inaction. It is only natural that Germany, given its history, demonstrate to Europe the need for draconian sanctions against Iran by imposing such sanctions bilaterally. After all, for Europe as a whole to change policy, one nation must start the ball rolling by being out front. But even if Germany is not willing to break ranks, even in a critical cause and even as a means to bring Europe along, what is stopping Germany from being the champion of such steps within internal European deliberations? In fact, the opposite has been the case: While France and the UK have been pressing for tougher European sanctions, it is Germany, among the EU-3, that has been most resistant. While it is true that Germany has cut its export subsidies for trade with Iran, and that Austria and Italy are reportedly bigger offenders now than is Germany, this modest improvement does not compare with where Germany should be. As Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon reportedly said to the German ministers: "I expect German society to sever all of its ties, commercial and otherwise, with Iran." This, however, does not seem to be Olmert's position. With Merkel, Olmert spoke of the "shared position of Germany and Israel in the fight to prevent the nuclear armament of Iran." But there is no shared position. Israel is not a key trading partner of Iran; Germany is. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Iran; Germany does. Israel is not in a position to lead the push for a European trade and diplomatic boycott of Iran; Germany is. Ramon's statement was the exception that proves the rule. Israel is playing along with Germany's attempt to pass off hugs as a substitute for effective action. This fact is an indictment of Germany, but it is an even greater indictment of our own leadership. It would be nice if we could expect Germany to lead on the Iranian issue without prompting - this is what moral Germans should be pressing for from their own government. But it is hardly surprising that Germany is acting as most governments do, which is to avoid actions that cause short-term domestic pressure and pain, even if they are reckless in the long term and blatantly contradict national values and interests. WHAT IS impossible to fathom is why Olmert and his government, with the exception of Ramon, will not say to Germany: "We appreciate your support, but stopping Iran requires concrete action. We therefore have every confidence in your recognizing that your 'special responsibility' requires you to be leading, not resisting, a European-wide decision to impose draconian sanctions on Teheran." Such frank talk is not pleasant for a national leader. It is much easier for Olmert to pretend that, behind closed doors, Germany is doing everything it should be doing, and that his own refusal to sound the slightest alarm is justified. Olmert would rather project complete agreement emerging from every meeting, as if every meeting were a success. This is how Olmert operates across the board. He praises Hosni Mubarak while Egypt refuses to stop the arming of Hamas in Gaza. He praises George Bush and goes along with the charade of Annapolis, even though that "process" has become a substitute for a serious US policy toward Iran. Country after country seeks validation from the main victim of its inadequate or irresponsible policies, and Olmert is happy to oblige. The refusal of Israel's leader to comprehensively spell out why and how Iran must be stopped is an abdication of leadership that puts this nation at risk. Success does not come from demanding nothing, but from a willingness to say the truth and to press for what is necessary, not just a minimalist estimate of what will fly. Olmert must break out of his addiction to obsequiousness. He could start by helping Germany snap out of its post-Holocaust paralysis that risks ushering in a new holocaust. This requires honesty, and frank speaking. That's what leaders, and friends, are for. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11