Paris Ehud Olmert is a man of his times. The Israeli prime minister shows little interest in diplomacy or peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He exalts action and results that make his nation feel more secure, whatever the cost to others.
Olmert created that impression in Washington in May and reinforced it in Europe last week on visits to London and Paris. He was greeted with revealing equanimity in the European capitals, which have mechanically supported the Palestinian cause and voiced hostility to Israel over three decades.
That Olmert received a fair hearing in Europe for what he called his "irreversible" plan for unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank is another sign of the times or, at the least, of the spreading fatigue and disillusion with the dangers of the Middle East.
Even the French have grown weary of the region and now see it as more of a quagmire than an opportunity to outflank American ambitions. French official statements on the Middle East contain a balance in assigning blame or responsibility between Israelis and Palestinians that has been largely absent since the 1967 Six-Day War. An excellent white paper on counterterrorism produced by the Foreign Ministry this spring shows French concerns and resolve in dealing with jihadist ideology and acts of terrorism.
On the peace process and on Iran - French President Jacques Chirac is at least as skeptical of Tehran's intentions as is President Bush, officials here say - "the voice of France is blurred and indistinct," Le Monde Diplomatique, a leftist journal, complains in this month's issue.
However sweet to American ears, this is a damning criticism in a nation that has perfected diplomacy as an art form and a vital instrument to protect France's gradually eroding position as a global power and the catalytic nation in the European Union. The comment accurately suggests that diplomacy has fallen behind security policies and military action as the guiding spirit of the post-Sept. 11 era, and not only in George W. Bush's America.
Chirac went through the motions of publicly insisting that Israel resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but did not press the point. As he did in Washington, Olmert offered lip service to the idea, but insisted that talks would start only when terrorism was eliminated and the Hamas-led government recognized Israel. In the meantime, he would move ahead to seal off Israel from the Palestinian territories and to establish a final frontier unilaterally.
In reality, Olmert believes that any settlement with the Palestinians will come only after a bloody clash finally resolves the power struggle that currently pits the forces of Hamas against those of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. Fatah must break Hamas and other radical forces, guarantee Israel's security from suicide bombers and other acts of terrorism, and form a stable government before Olmert will even talk to the Palestinians seriously, he indicated in private talks in Washington.
That was, after all, the deal Yitzhak Rabin thought he had struck with Yasser Arafat in the 1993 Oslo accords. But two years later an Israeli assassin's bullet removed Rabin, the only Israeli leader who might have been capable of making Arafat live up to his agreement to eliminate the Palestinian threat to Israel as a condition for incipient statehood.
Israelis too have grown weary of the Palestinian problem and of occupying territories they should have long ago evacuated in return for reasonable security safeguards. Olmert's determination to escape from the West Bank and Gaza, even if by leaving both in smoldering ruins, reflects his nation's mood as well as the confrontational global politics of the time. His policies seem designed to accelerate and intensify the clashes now occurring in the territories in hopes this will bring greater security for Israel.
But scorched-earth policies contain grave risks that Olmert seems to minimize to others and perhaps to himself. A civil war among the Palestinians could further radicalize a victorious Fatah. It would certainly strengthen a triumphant Hamas. In any event, it would reduce the Palestinians to such desperate and embittered conditions that the goal of two states living side by side in peace would move beyond reach.
The two-state solution is a worthy goal that will require creative diplomacy and meaningful contacts between Palestinians and Israelis at some point. After all, Bush is now willing to envision diplomatic contacts with Iran to advance a peaceful settlement. That is a welcome move back toward a world that must find security in international agreements as well as in military action abroad and self-defense measures at home.