As a career politician with a love for the urbane, Ehud Olmert might have been expected to shine at the Union for the Mediterranean conference on Sunday.
But the Israeli prime minister, faced with a spiraling corruption scandal at home, appeared subdued — some said defeated — during this week’s gathering of dozens of world leaders in Paris.
The frisson of speculation that the summit might see a first face-to-face encounter between Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad fizzled when Assad smilingly and repeatedly sidestepped the Israeli leader.
Nonetheless Assad, having been invited to Paris largely as a result of the recent public launch of indirect peace talks with Israel, made the most of an unusual welcome by a leading Western country.
The French media feted Syria’s dictator and first lady while Olmert, having left his wife, Aliza, in Jerusalem, cut a far lonelier figure at the Grand Palais.
Israeli pundits were unsparing in their censure.
One newspaper cartoon showed Olmert, whom police now suspect of bilking the state by double billing travel expenses for himself and his family, among other allegations, begging for change on the Champs Elysees.
“Syria threw Olmert a fetid bone and received in exchange half the kingdom,” Sever Plocker wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “Assad was received at the Mediterranean countriesâ€™ conference in Paris as a victorious hero, while Olmert was received as a loser and a guest who forced his presence on everyone.”
Such fierce critiques once might have drawn counter-fire from Olmert, who denies breaking the law and insists his diplomatic initiatives with Syria and the Palestinians are the best way to win peace and security for Israel.
But unlike in previous trips abroad, Olmert largely avoided his own media entourage. He delivered a brief statement on the flight out from Tel Aviv but took no questions. In Paris, he gave no news conferences or background briefings.
Famously a fitness freak, Olmert decided against taking his morning run at the gym of the lavish Crillon Hotel.
“He’s been looking tired,” an aide said by way of explanation.
Bereft of fresh material, several Israeli journalists wondered at the sudden silence of a man who long had appeared to relish the tussle of open debate. The consensus was that he did not want to face uncomfortable questions about his legal situation, but there was also an underlying sense of regret.
“Perhaps we overdid it?” one TV reporter murmured, apparently in reference to the coverage of the scandal that erupted in May over Olmert’s financial ties to American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.
A political commentator from a major Israeli Web site shrugged and said, “Look, we were too easy on Sharon, and look what happened after the Gaza pullout. We should have been tougher back then. We have to be tough now.”
A newspaper correspondent who speaks regularly with Olmert said the prime minister remains defiant. But the journalist added, “I can’t imagine how he’s going to find a way out of this mess, and my sense is he knows this, too.”
Olmert has vowed to resign if indicted. A sooner exit could come in the form of a September primary election in his Kadima Party.
In a move unusual for an incumbent, Olmert has not said whether he intends to try to keep the party helm. Political sources said he first wants to see if his lawyers can undermine Talansky under cross-examination, which might boost his domestic standing.
Polls suggest the Kadima vote would be won by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who accompanied Olmert to Paris but rarely appeared by his side.
Asked about the prime minister’s conduct during the trip, a senior aide, his eyes bleary from fatigue, shrugged and said simply, “He’s a man who always weighs his options.”