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Editorial: French contribution to Mideast peace

Arab News, 25.06.08

French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid it on the line to his hosts when he addressed the Israeli Knesset on Monday. The building of illegal settlements on the West Bank has to stop. Without this there could be no viable two-state solution and no peace. Sarkozy further urged Israeli legislators to backup legislation to encourage settlers to quit Palestinian territory and relocate to Israel in return for compensation. Yesterday, the French leader went on to talk with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during which he unveiled plans for his country to construct an industrial park on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
What is interesting about this visit — the first by a French president in 12 years — is the way in which, despite his strong statements of support for Israel, the Palestinians have welcomed his protest on illegal settlements and contrasted it to the lukewarm statements of President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this year. One Palestinian newspaper commented that no one should mind Sarkozy “flirting” with Israel as a matter of political necessity. It also praised his courage in criticizing the Israeli land grab and underlining the Palestinian character of East Jerusalem.
The first question has to be, however, whether Sarkozy is merely following the traditional French line of exploiting foreign policy opportunities to take a tangentially different line, especially from the Americans and British, or whether he has opted to involve France in the Middle East in a deeper and more significant manner. The signs are that the latter is true. Paris worked hard to try and broker a settlement to Lebanon’s constitutional standoff over the election of a president. Sarkozy has clearly raised the dialogue with Syria, whose control of the Golan Heights will be an essential part of a wider regional settlement. It is also possible he is using Damascus as a channel to persuade the Iranians to conform to the International Energy Agency’s requirements over its nuclear program.
The next question concerns the extent to which Sarkozy is operating on behalf of the wider European Union (EU), which has thus far allowed Washington to dictate the agenda of the Middle East Peace Quartet, of which the EU is a member. If his initiative enjoys tacit approval from other European capitals, then his demands of Israel (and also of the Palestinians for the curbing of attacks against Israel) will carry that much more weight and cannot therefore be dismissed by Israeli hard-liners. It is indeed hard to see any other European leader with the reputation to spearhead such a campaign.
However, if all that comes out of this trip is a West Bank industrial park that will become a future target for Israeli warplanes when they want to inflict further collective punishment on the Palestinians, it will have been a failure. But if Sarkozy has helped to concentrate minds on both sides and offered to do what he can to drive toward a just settlement, then well and good. He might also have urged Hamas be included early in talks, but that would perhaps have undermined his stern message on settlements.