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Sunday, 30 July 2006

Under Olmert, Israel putting new emphasis on diplomacy

Officials, citing absence of pressure to halt assault in Lebanon, say it's working

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Page A - 8

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called an emergency Cabinet meeting late last week, Nimrod Barkan received an urgent late-night call requiring his attendance.

The presence of the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Center for Policy Research would have been unthinkable a short time ago. But these days, Barkan and his Foreign Ministry colleagues are savoring a new experience: being taken seriously by the man at the top.

Foreign Ministry officials say they are beginning to reap the benefits of increased Israeli efforts to engage the international community, after decades of isolation and rejection in successive governments dominated by military and intelligence officials. The officials point to the fact that Israel has so far escaped head-on pressure from the international community to halt its assault on Hezbollah as a measure of their success.

So far, Britain and the United States have blocked calls for an immediate cease-fire, allowing Israel's military campaign to continue. Last week, in fact, much of the international criticism for blocking a call for an immediate cessation was aimed at President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not at Israel.

"We learned the lessons of losing international support during the intifada," said one ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, referring to the Palestinian uprising that ended last year. "The world agrees with us in the war on terror, and we have learned that we cannot achieve our security imperatives on our own. We need to build international coalitions."

Two weeks ago, foreign ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized countries and the European Union pointedly blamed Hezbollah for sparking the current conflict and called for the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 -- which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, the disarming of militias and the extension of Lebanese government control over all its territory.

"There is an understanding today that our national goals seeking security in Lebanon do in fact complement completely the stated position of the international community," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "As a result, we can use our diplomacy in a very effective way to bring about changes that are positive."

Regev said it helps that Israel is merely seeking to enforce agreed-on policies: "Israel is saying to the international community, 'Implement your own resolutions.' "

"There is broad international agreement, as expressed in the G-8 statement, that Hezbollah is responsible for the current crisis," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told a small group of reporters in Jerusalem last weekend. "There is also broad international agreement on the nature of the threat -- that it is a regional threat connected to an axis comprising Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and Hamas. There is agreement that our soldiers should be released unconditionally and U.N. Security Council resolution 1559 be implemented."

She added, "This is a test, not just for Israel, but for the international community."

Livni's suggestion that international sentiment chimes with the Israeli position is borne out by the unfolding diplomacy, Israeli officials said.

"The rejectionist front has underestimated Israel's determination and capacity for deterrence. It has proved there is no way back to the status quo in Lebanon, and it revealed Iran's hegemonic aspirations to the entire world," wrote former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, no slouch when he felt the need to criticize Israeli policies in the past.

Some Israeli politicians are still uncomfortable with the subtleties of diplomacy. When foreign ministers meeting in Rome on Wednesday failed once again to demand an immediate cease-fire, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon could hardly contain his joy.

"We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world ... to continue the operation, this war, until Hezbollah won't be located in Lebanon and until it is disarmed," Ramon crowed on Israeli army radio. "Everyone understands that a victory for Hezbollah is a victory for world terror."

Those comments sparked embarrassment in Jerusalem and disdain abroad. U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli called Ramon's statement "outrageous."

If Ramon represents the old breed of Israeli leaders -- given to blurting out blunt comments that are a gift to Israel's critics -- Livni has been welcomed as a breath of fresh air.

Benny Dagan, head of the Middle East desk at the ministry's Center for Political Research, said Livni has nurtured close contacts with friendly foreign ministers, including Rice, that are reaping benefits during the current crisis. "She has been very successful in terms of creating this very close relationship with her colleagues," Dagan said.

The chemistry between Olmert and Livni has invigorated Israeli diplomacy all the way down the line, officials said. The past turf wars that paralyzed Israeli policymaking, diplomacy and public relations have been replaced by a new can-do attitude. Israeli officials are hopeful that the international community is willing to hear their message.

"In the past, we haven't been effective in bringing international legitimacy to our own demands," Regev said.

Ministry experts who have labored for years researching regional issues and strategic options have been pleasantly surprised to find themselves briefing the country's leaders and policymakers.

"I think the current foreign minister is a strong power within that framework," Dagan said. "It's allowing us to be more effective, at least in terms of presenting what we would like to see in terms of the political resolution of that conflict."

Unlike his immediate predecessors, Olmert became Israel's leader without experience as a senior military or intelligence officer. He is a career politician used to taking advice from professionals, and both he and Livni are eager to embrace diplomacy alongside Israel's tested skills in warfare and espionage.

The process began under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, an ex-general who won international legitimacy and U.N. verification for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in May 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.

Ariel Sharon, his successor, talked Israelis into supporting the disengagement from Gaza in September 2005. The plan eventually won international support, including the deployment of European Union monitors at the sensitive Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Prompted by Livni, Olmert has gone further, abandoning Israel's traditional objections to the deployment of international peacekeepers and calling for an international "stabilization force" in Lebanon.

"This is a serious, substantive departure from Israel's traditional mode of diplomacy," said historian Michael Oren of the Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem. "In the past, Israel has embarked on a military initiative or responded to Arab attack and assumed that military might alone would achieve the required diplomatic results. Now, there is an understanding that military action is ancillary to diplomacy."

Not everyone is convinced that diplomacy has come to the fore. Daniel Levy, an aide in the Barak government who is now director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation and Century Foundation, chided Israel's diplomats "for failing to devise a diplomatic offensive that could have encouraged a new reality in southern Lebanon."

He called the years since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon "a gargantuan missed opportunity for Israeli diplomacy. Why did Israel not initiate a public overture -- offering Lebanese prisoners in return for certain steps in the south, for instance, or make this a priority talking point with the U.S. or international community?"

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