Sarkozy hits Israel where it hurts

June 28, 2008

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy's state visit to Israel on June 22-24 was striking for the candor with which he addressed his hosts. He spoke as an intimate friend -- certainly Israel's best friend in Europe -- but he did not mince his words, both on his arrival at Ben Gurion airport and a day later in the Knesset.

“The time to make peace is now,” he told the Israelis. “Tomorrow, it will be too late.” Rarely has a foreign leader spelled out so clearly what Israel has to do for peace -- and what it has sought at all costs to avoid.
Sarkozy laid particular emphasis on three points, which he hammered in at every opportunity. The first, and most important, was this: “Israel's security will not be truly assured until we see, at last, at its side an independent, modern, democratic and viable Palestinian state.”
Two other themes were given equal prominence - and were equally unwelcome to many Israelis. “There can be no peace without an immediate and complete halt to settlements (colonies),” he declared. The settlers (colonizers)], he said, should be compensated and brought back to Israel. And then -- in a statement which was nothing less than sacrilege for Israeli hard-liners -- he added: “There can be no peace without recognition of (occupied) Jerusalem (Beit-ul-Moqaddas) as the capital of two states and the guarantee of free access to the holy places for all religions.”
Knesset members greeted his remarks with polite, but hardly enthusiastic, applause.
This was the speech the U.S. President George W. Bush should have made when he attended Israel's 60th birthday celebrations in May; the speech Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama should have made when he addressed Israel's U.S. lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in early June; the speech German Chancellor Angela Merkel should have made when she was in Israel in March; the speech Tony Blair should have made when he was Britain's prime minister, but which he shrank from uttering then, and which he has continued to funk and fudge as Quartet representative.
In his reply to Sarkozy, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quick to say that “We don't always agree on every issue, on every detail, see things exactly the same way”. Clearly, he had an eye on his right-wing constituents and the powerful lobby of colonizers.
Ever since he became prime minister after Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke, Olmert has pressed ahead with Israeli expansion on the West Bank, and has ringed Arab Jerusalem (Beit-ul-Moqaddas) with Jewish colonies, cutting it off from its hinterland. He has vowed that the city will remain Israel's undivided capital for all time, brushing aside Arab outrage and America's mild objections.
When on her last ineffectual visit to the region this month -- the last of 15 such visits in as many months -- the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dared to say that “continued settlement activity has the potential to harm the peace talks.” Danny Dayan, the chairman of the colonizers' Yesha council called her remarks “impertinent and shameless”.
“Israel,” he said, “has been spat in the face and the government treats it as rain drops”. Washington chose not to respond to this insult.
It remains to be seen whether Sarkozy will achieve something of substance, or whether his brave words will simply fade away -- like all the other international rulings, injunctions and resolutions Israel has resolutely ignored. Sarkozy is an ambitious politician who revels in spectacular coups. If he were to start a process leading to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East he will have won his place in history.
To many observers, Sarkozy is attempting nothing less than to transfer the lead role in Middle East peace-making from the United States to Europe, and more particularly to France (which, on July 1, assumes the presidency of the European Union.)
It is worth noting what he said in Israel:
“France, which loves and respects the peoples of the Middle East, wishes to make its contribution to peace.
“It is prepared to organize on its territory all the talks which could lead to peace, whether it be the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or the Syrian-Israeli dialogue, or the discussions which should resume, I hope at an early date, between Israel and Lebanon.
“On these three tracks of the peace process, France is ready to offer its guarantee, it is ready to mobilize its diplomacy, its resources, its troops, as it is already doing with other European partners, in south Lebanon.”
To make his message -- and his ambition -- acceptable to the United States and Israel, Sarkozy has spared no effort to woo both countries. He has posed as their closest friend and ally. He has aligned himself with Washington and has flattered Israel, and pledging that, if it were ever threatened, France would be at its side.
According to well-placed French sources, Sarkozy's diplomacy reflects a widespread feeling among many European decision-makers that Bush's Middle East policy has been a disaster. The last months of the lame-duck Bush presidency create an opportunity for Europe to step in with an initiative of its own.
Equally, Sarkozy is said to believe that Israel is digging itself into a hole by its brutalities towards the Palestinians and towards Lebanon, as in its 2006 war. Its attempts to crush Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have been strikingly unsuccessful. Both these (Islamic) resistance movements on Israel's borders have managed to achieve a measure of deterrence, forcing Israel into an exchange of prisoners and, in the case of Hamas, a truce.
Sarkozy, French sources say, sees himself as the man who can rescue Israel from its errors and set in on the path of peace and acceptance in the region.
In dealing with Israel, the French president has one useful lever to hand. Israel is keen to strengthen its political, economic, educational, defense and scientific ties with Europe during France's six-month presidency of the EU. But Sarkozy is an emotional man, quick to anger if rebuffed. If Israel pays no heed to his message, it may not get the privileged partnership with Europe to which it aspires.
But there are other more formidable obstacles. Can Israel's land-theft and colonization be reversed? Can the fanatical, gun-toting colonizers be tamed? Can Israel's lethal combination of arrogance and paranoia be converted into a readiness to coexist in peace with its neighbors?
For Israel, the benefits of peace would be enormous. Normal relations with all 22 members of the Arab League; an end to the armed resistance of Hezbollah and Hamas; a new chapter in relations with Iran; and a chance to restore Israel's international image, battered by its many wars and aggressions and its cruelty to the Palestinians under occupation.
There is just a chance -- if only a slim one -- that Nicolas Sarkozy might be the leader Europe and the Middle East have been waiting for, a leader who, in partnership with a new American president, could rally the world behind a genuine peace effort.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.
(Source: Gulf News