Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why would the French president want to save Hamas?

NIDRA POLLER | From today's Wall Street Journal Europe

Israeli authorities insist they have learned the lessons of the botched 2006 Lebanon war. How about France?
No sooner had Israel hit Hamas command and control centers last week than Nicolas Sarkozy scolded Jerusalem for using "disproportionate force" and called for an immediate 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire. Does this echo of Jacques Chirac's rhetoric indicate a simple reversion to -- some would say continuation of -- France's politique arabe? The French in 2006 succeeded in presenting an overdue Israeli riposte against unprovoked Hezbollah attacks as a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. The cease-fire deal hammered out at the United Nations by then French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Condoleezza Rice effectively saved Hezbollah and undermined democratic forces in Lebanon. Does Mr. Sarkozy now want to save Hamas?
Reluctantly yielding the presidency of the European Union to the Czechs on Jan. 1, Mr. Sarkozy held on to his prerogatives and tried for a solo diplomatic exploit with Gaza. The emergency meeting of his EU counterparts convoked by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner yielded a shaky consensus on a vague cease-fire demand. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew in and out of Paris on New Year's Day to reiterate, politely but firmly, her government's intention to pursue the military operation to its necessary conclusion.
Mr. Sarkozy -- upstaging an official EU delegation -- left Monday for his own two-day mission to Cairo, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut, ending with a visit to French U.N. peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah rearmed under the "watchful eyes" of those U.N. troops. Hezbollah, Hamas and their patron, Iran, are seeking to destroy Israel; Messrs. Sarkozy and Kouchner are seeking "the path to peace" -- paved with the kind of peacekeepers that have failed so miserably in Lebanon.
It doesn't make sense. While Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit blames Hamas for provoking the Israeli intervention, and moderate Arab governments stand by with folded hands as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood gets its comeuppance, why would the French president, who has consistently displayed his affection for Israel, want to save Hamas's neck?
Mr. Sarkozy's detractors are not at a loss for explanations: vainglorious ambition; erratic, overexcited haste making waste; cynical concern for France's Arab-Muslim markets, combined with cowardly surrender to its restless immigrant communities; low-down betrayal of Israel and the Jews. Without dismissing any or all of these motivations, it might be helpful to explore the conjunction of a Nicolas-to-the-rescue self-image and a power-to-the-peacemakers European strategy.
In 1993, as mayor of the chic Parisian suburb of Neuilly, Nicolas Sarkozy helped rescue kindergartners from a self-described "human bomb" who had wired their classroom with explosives. Mr. Sarkozy's enemies accuse him of grandstanding, but the image of the young mayor carrying a liberated child corresponds to his conception of political action. Hand-wringers denounced the use of excessive force when commandos ended the two-day siege by shooting the hostage taker in the head.
A rescue exploit also marked the beginning of Mr. Sarkozy's presidency. With the help of his soon-to-be ex-wife Cecilia, he pried five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor out of the Libyan prison where they had been held since 1999, accused of injecting children with HIV. As a reward for releasing the health workers, Moammar Gadhafi was invited five months later to pitch his tents in the center of Paris, parade around town in his flowing robes and, reportedly, sign on for a nuclear power plant and other goodies.
Lebanon was rescued à la française last spring when a Hezbollah show of force threatened to destroy the last shreds of legitimate government power. An accommodating Michel Suleiman was ushered into the presidential slot, Hezbollah's might-makes-right power was tacitly accepted, and President Sarkozy led a French delegation to congratulate the Lebanese on their "peaceful" conflict resolution.
Russia's August invasion of Georgia inspired another high-profile rescue/rehabilitation operation. Messrs. Sarkozy and Kouchner zipped back and forth between Tbilisi to Moscow and negotiated a cease-fire deal that left Georgia dismembered of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and encouraged similar threats to the sovereignty of Ukraine.
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And now Mr. Sarkozy has turned his diplomatic skills to Gaza. Unlike Mr. Chirac, who was viscerally anti-Zionist, Mr. Sarkozy's sympathies for Israel don't appear feigned. As a sincere friend of the Jewish state, Nicolas Sarkozy believes he can speak frankly, criticize freely and act wisely. (He takes the same position vis-à-vis the U.S. and the war in Iraq.) Determined to forge the same forthright relations with the Arab world, he has been trying, in vain, to include Israel in a new, improved Mediterranean Union.
But what does he have in mind for this stage of the conflict? There have been hints of a plan to persuade Syria, Egypt and Lebanon to persuade Hamas to promise to eventually stop shooting rockets into Israel, in exchange, one might guess, for maximal concessions from Israel.
How can an intelligent man like Nicolas Sarkozy carry his penchant for negotiation to the absurdity of protecting Hamas, which figures on the EU list of terrorist organizations? If Israel is not allowed to defend itself against terrorists who have fired some 6,500 rockets at Israeli civilians since 2005, it follows that anyone can do anything to Israel without fear of retribution. Is this the assumption behind the notion of "disproportionate force"?
Mr. Sarkozy's condemnation of Hamas for "irresponsible . . . inexcusable" action, repeated at every step of the peace junket, is meaningless when combined with his demand that Israel silence its guns. Syrian President Bashir al Assad, reintegrated into the international community by the grace of Mr. Sarkozy, lent a deaf ear to his requests for a calming influence on Hamas. The Syrian dictator only condemned Israel's "war crimes."
Israeli President Shimon Peres urged his French counterpart to refrain from bringing a cease-fire resolution before the U.N. Security Council -- but to no avail. Bernard Kouchner went straight to New York to convince the Americans to facilitate said resolution. This too is expected to fail. Stumped by an American administration that has not said its last word, rebuffed by an Israeli government determined to handle the situation on its own terms and timetable, rejected by an ingrate Syrian dictator, the French president has little to show for his end run around the EU delegation. Unless his last minute decision to fly back to Egypt last night indicates a re-alignment?
As long as Washington stands with its Israeli ally, the French president's influence will be limited. But the days of moral clarity in the White House might soon be over. George W. Bush -- who declared: "Another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable" -- is on his way out. The world is waiting for Barack Obama to set things right.
What lurks behind the president-elect's cautious silence on this major conflict? Nicolas Sarkozy's troubling peacemaking is eerily similar to Mr. Obama's winning campaign arguments. Declaring a firm commitment to Israel's security, the candidate promised to improve America's relations with its European allies and the Arab-Muslim world, and resolve conflicts by dialogue and astute diplomacy.
As virulent anti-Israeli demonstrations flare across the U.S., the dangers of the French president's illusions may soon be multiplied by a real world power.
Ms. Poller is an American writer living in Paris since 1972.

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