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article imageOp-Ed: France tries to muscle in on Middle East peace talks

By Michael Cosgrove     Oct 7, 2010 in Politics
The upcoming visit to Israel by the French Foreign Minister is part of an intense lobbying campaign by President Sarkozy to get France and Europe a seat at the Middle East peace negotiations table. But will he succeed? Nothing is less sure.
Bernard Kouchner is a capable Foreign Minister and an extremely experienced negotiator, and that’s why Nicolas Sarkozy is sending him to Israel on Sunday. But Kouchner will need to use all of his diplomatic prowess if he is to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a solution to the construction freeze deadlock which dogged the recent talks between himself and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington.
Persuading Netanyahu to offer more on the settlements issue is vitally important to Sarkozy’s hopes of holding a planned Middle East peace summit in Paris on October 21. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have agreed in principle to attend, as has Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but the summit’s existence depends very much on decisions taken at tomorrow’s Arab League summit. If those Arab countries present do not consider that Netanyahu will come up with the goods on a settlement freeze, any hope that the Paris summit will take place may well be scuppered.
President Sarkozy has been working hard for several years to try and get France and Europe back in the Mideast peace talks loop, and it was no different for his predecessor, Jaques Chirac. The reasons for this are threefold.
The first involves a historical perspective. France has had a long history of involvement in Mideast politics and trade issues, and was a major player in the events and planning which led to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which resulted in the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab lands. But French influence worldwide declined after WWII at the same time as the United States began to transform itself into the superpower we see today.
This has always rankled the French, who still see the Arab world as being ‘their rightful sphere of influence.’ So Sarkozy’s initiative is yet another in a long series of attempts to wrest back some of the influence it lost at the expense of America. These geopolitical concerns, based on historical anti-American resentment as well as present-day global influence issues, are another major reason why France is trying so hard to regain influence in the Mideast.
The third element concerns Europe. The individual countries that make up the European Union are all painfully aware that the only means of ensuring their long-term influence across the world lies in acting together. That is one of the primary reasons that the EU was formed moreover. Faced with the United States, the Far East and other major centers of economic and diplomatic power, they know that a coherent foreign policy approach which suits the needs of all its members at once is essential.
But Sarkozy’s attempts to give France a louder voice in the Mideast peace talks may well founder for the very reasons described above, reasons which drove him to devise his strategy in the first place.
First of all, Sarkozy also invited US State Secretary Hillary Clinton to Paris. He didn’t have any choice of course, and would surely have preferred not to, but the United States are still the major peace brokers in the Israel-Palestine conflict whether he likes it or not. Unfortunately for him, his oft-repeated statements to the effect that an American monopoly on the process is a bad thing and that the Americans make too many tactical mistakes are what led to Clinton’s response, as reported by Haaretz.
A senior Israeli official who is involved in the negotiations allegedly claimed that the American response to Sarkozy’s invitation and his ideas in general was “cool”, adding that “Clinton did not say no, but she did not respond in the affirmative.” That is not surprising given Sarkozy’s low opinion of American efforts, but the bad news for him is that if America drags its feet over French initiatives, they will not fly.
A second hurdle is Israeli resistance. It is precisely because France sees itself as a natural interlocutor because of its ‘knowledge’ of Arab states and involvement with them – a fact which has automatically led to France’s relatively harsh judgment of Israeli policies over the years – that Israelis see France as being fundamentally biased towards the Arab cause. The only reason that Netanyahu is not being more openly disdainful of French ideas on the Mideast is because he does not want to be seen as refusing to consider peace options and initiatives.
Then there’s Europe, which is finding it an almost impossible task to come up with a commonly agreed stance on the Mideast crisis. Britain and Germany, the two major players, both have their own reasons for being more clement towards Israel, and they both consider that the French are yet again trying to find a wedge to drive between themselves and the United States. They too will not give Sarkozy any more help than they absolutely need to.
Finally of course, Israel, America, Britain, Germany, Italy, Poland and several other countries have - quite rightly in my view - seen Sarkozy’s move for what it is; An attempt to gain admiration at home for his diplomatic ability and international standing in view of the 2012 presidential elections.
The irony here is that Nicolas Sarkozy’s basic ideas for the Middle East are not radically different from those of the majority of other Western countries – the cessation of hostilities, two states, a settlement agreement, and Palestinian recognition of Israel.
Will his gamble pay off? It’s too early to say, but it is clear that he can’t have his cake and eat it. His, and his country’s, attitudes and policies vis-à-vis the other major players have long been seen as being hostile towards them and cynically designed to further no-one’s interest but those of France.
In other words, if Sarkozy fails in the Middle East, he will only have his own country’s past foreign policy decisions to blame.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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