13/11/2009

A welcome French initiative

Is France preparing to resume an active role in the peace process in the Middle East? The diplomatic developments this week seem to prove it. After Netanyahu’s visit Wednesday to the Elysee, several phone calls to Abbas, Nicolas Sarkozy is receiving Bashar al-Assad today.

Wednesday, French President received Prime Minister of Israel at the Elysee Palace for a meeting one hour and forty minutes during which Le Figaro reports a good atmosphere but nevertheless a number of disagreements, on the follow-up to the Goldstone report or on the freeze on settlements (see Figaro 12/11/2009). The encounter seems against all odds to have provided some steps forward since Sarkozy called Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to make « important suggestions” to him. The French president had also already called his Palestinian counterpart Tuesday to encourage him to continue his work for peace at the head of the Palestinian Authority (see Le Monde, 12/11/2009).

Following the misstep from the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the issue of settlements (See the blog of Figaro journalist Pierre Rousselin ), the American effort in favor of the peace process seems to let dangerously in water. Obama and Netanyahu met Monday in a meeting of one hour forty, but behind closed doors, a sign that the US-Israel relations are cold. Nicolas Sarkozy chose his moment perfectly to play the French card in the resumption of the peace process. These efforts seem also supported by Moscow, which has been trying for months to influence the Middle Eastern scene. Sarkozy has so proposed to Abbas to hold a peace conference on the Middle East in the Russian capital.

Other support to French President,  the one of Bashar al-Assad who was received this Friday at the Elysee. Following the warming of relations between France and Syria in the wake of the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Syrian President had already called for the involvement of France in the Israeli-Arab Peace Process (see interview with Al – Assad in Le Figaro on 8/7/2008). He acknowledges the weakness of today’s American partner (see interview with al-Assad in the Figaro of 12/11/2009) and calls on France to a more active role in Middle East (see BBC, 13/11/2009).

With the backing of another major power and Syria’s approval, France has a chance to unlock the peace process. Sarkozy’s diplomatic energy and his pragmatism are qualities that are in his favor. The change of context can also be an advantage: instead of the traditional handshake on the steps of the White House, will we have a hug on the doorstep of the Kremlin? It remains to be seen whether these French initiatives will be sufficient to convince the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Syrians and also the Lebanese.

However, in the absence of a common foreign policy of the 27 members of the European Union, as well as a significant part of it on the Middle Eastern scene, one can only welcome such gestures. Nevertheless let us dare to hope that the EU will assist the French effort, so that it will know a better future than the Union for the Mediterranean.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée