MUNICH, Germany — Walking around downtown Munich for the last three days, I couldn’t help but think that if the Germans wanted to, say, invade nearby Austria, they could do so without any difficulty in a matter of hours. Hundreds of police and army vans patrolled the streets, some having arrived from far-away German states, and countless men and women marched around in heavy riot gear, to protect the participants of the fiftieth Munich Security Conference.
While the area outside the fancy Bayrischer Hof Hotel looked like a warzone, inside the influential and powerful gathered in an attempt to make the world a safer place. Some 20 heads of state and heads of government, and more than 50 foreign and defense ministers — including two top ministers from Israel and the foreign minister of Iran – had gathered in the Southern German metropolis for the world’s largest security conference on its jubilee.
I was looking for some stories beyond the headlines, and to make some personal contacts with delegates from countries that are usually not on speaking terms with Israelis. And I found that representatives from Sunni states were notably friendly and happy to speak positively about Israelis and Jews, though they were unwilling to be interviewed for an Israel-based outlet.
The foreign minister of Qatar, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, for instance, gave me a warm and long handshake, which endured even as I told him that I’m from Israel. “I’m happy that you react like this,” I said.
“Of course, we’re brothers,” he replied.
But when I asked him if he’d discuss substantive issues, he quickly excused himself, saying he wasn’t be able to talk right now. He told his assistant to take my business card; she would get in touch with me and set up a meeting, “so we can discuss the issue more in depth,” he said. “Take my word for it, she will call you,” he promised with a smile and rushed off.
Dear Foreign Minister Al Attiyah’s assistant, if you’re reading this, I’m looking forward to your call.
The conference’s high point, from an Israeli perspective, was a panel Friday night during which justice minister and chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, discussed the current US-brokered efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unexpectedly, during the event, Saudi-Arabian Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, a former intelligence chief and ambassador, got up from his seat in the front row and heaped praise on the Israeli minister.
On Sunday, I approached Prince Turki, hoping he could elaborate on his admiration for Livni. He was warm but politely unhelpful, refusing to say anything about the peace process. “I’m not giving interviews until I can invite you to Riyadh,” he said.
Maybe after my trip to Qatar?
These representatives of Sunni states were plainly content to be seen with an Israeli if not to talk substance with one. By contrast, a young delegate from Lebanon — a mostly Shiite country — who works for a think tank in one of the Gulf states, shook my hand and joked around with me at first. But when I sought to discuss regional politics, he quickly became serious and said that, actually, it might be better if we kept our distance. “I’m a Lebanese citizen, it’s against the law,” he noted. “I’m against the law, but it’s still the law.” And I shouldn’t even dream of calling him from an Israeli number, he added to be on the safe side, because he would never pick up. “Make peace with the Palestinians and then we’ll talk,” he suggested.
The Iranians were still more careful not be seen fraternizing with the Zionist enemy.
On Saturday night, some 120 conference-goers were invited to a “traditional Bavarian dinner,” to socialize and get to know each other. There were no nameplates at the tables when we walked into the hall and so people sat down wherever they found a free spot. And somehow it came to pass that at one table, three Israelis found themselves sharing a meal with a director-general of the Afghan Foreign Ministry, a Turk and two German journalists… and an official from Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
The Iranian man, in his early 30s, was clearly uncomfortable with the presence of three Israelis — this reporter, a Defense Ministry official and the chief of staff of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen. I shook his hand, smiled, introduced myself, and said that it was great that we could meet here, on neutral ground, and chat a bit. He looked quite terrified and said nothing. The other Israelis tried to strike up conversations with him soon after, to no avail. After about 15 minutes, the Iranian diplomat got up and fled, finding a seat at a different, presumably Zionist-free, table.
He was in such a hurry to make his escape that he left behind some papers and a notebook on his chair. Looking at the writings in Persian, I wondered whether I might have just scored the plans for Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Concluding that it was improbable, I left them where they were. I’m assuming he later recovered them, and I’m hoping my editor hasn’t read this far down.
Even Israel’s top officials were being relatively nice to the Iranians. On Sunday morning, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the other Israeli delegates who were still in Munich (Livni and Cohen had already left) remained in their seats when Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif took the stage at one session. Ya’alon was sitting in the front row throughout.
Just four months ago, Netanyahu ordered Israel’s delegation to the United Nations to walk out during the speech by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the General Assembly. “When Iran’s leaders stop denying the Holocaust of the Jewish people, stop calling for the destruction of the Jewish state and recognize Israel’s right to exist, the Israeli delegation will attend their addresses at the General Assembly,” Netanyahu said at the time.
This time, the Israelis stayed put — Ya’alon; Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor; the ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman; and several other senior officials (though they tried really hard to look disinterested). A handful of lower-level Israeli staff followed Zarif’s comments from the balcony on the second floor — sitting immediately alongside lower-level Iranian delegates. As far as I could see through the entire hour-and-a-half panel session, the Israelis and the Iranians managed not to look at each other.
“It was great that the Israelis stayed in the hall. I was really happy about that,” Omid Nouripour, an Iranian-born German MP, told me later. “For ten years we didn’t achieve anything, and now we have a window of opportunity,” said Nouripour, who serves as the Green Party’s foreign policy spokesman. “We won’t find out whether the Iranians are serious [about their stated desire to end the nuclear standoff with the West] if we don’t talk to them. It all depends on whether the Iranians deliver.”
By contrast, after Zarif had finished talking, and Ya’alon was about to take the podium for the conference’s concluding panel, all the Iranians made a brisk beeline for the door.
I later asked an Iranian diplomat stationed in Munich about the walkout; after all, Ya’alon had stayed for Zarif, even if he had chosen not to hazard a handshake with him. At first the diplomat was hesitant to speak to an Israeli journalist at all, but when I pressed he said the Iranians were rushing to catch their plane to Berlin.
Finally, an Iranian had spoken to me! He did quickly add that he wasn’t authorized to talk to Israelis. “But on a personal level, it made me happy to meet you. After all, we’re all human beings,” he said, somewhat awkwardly. Then he quickly backed away, leaving no papers behind.