Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Netanyahu on the way to Paris

How France can help


When Nicolas Sarkozy moved into the Elysée Palais in 2007, France-Israel relations took a dramatic turn for the better.

It would be difficult to imagine Jacques Chirac or François Mitterrand telling the Knesset, as Sarkozy did, last June: "The French people will always be [there] when your existence is threatened." Likewise, it would be surprising to hear Sarkozy refer publicly to Jews as "arrogant" and "domineering," as Charles de Gaulle did. And Israelis would be genuinely taken aback if a French ambassador were nowadays to refer to us as "that shitty little country."

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to leave today for France, where he is to meet with Sarkozy on Wednesday to discuss Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, upgrading relations with the European Union, and how to convince the Palestinian Authority to return to the negotiating table. Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will welcome Netanyahu with warmth. In recent years, not only have diplomatic relations improved; economic ties have strengthened, cultural ties have blossomed, and France has become a popular destination for vacationing Israelis.

WHILE French foreign policy and public sentiment is no longer unthinkingly pro-Arab, neither is it yet where we would wish it to be. A recent poll by The Israel Project confirmed that the French public remains generally more sympathetic toward the Palestinians than to Israel, with only 21 percent viewing us favorably.

France's policymakers remain under the erroneous impression that they facilitate peacemaking by pressing Israel to make concessions while basically giving the Palestinians a free ride.

Earlier this month, when Kouchner met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Paris, he offered faint praise for Netanyahu's seminal June 14 Bar-Ilan University address, but did not speak to the substance of our premier's speech. Yet he repeated France's long-standing opposition to "settlements" without distinguishing between Jewish neighborhoods in metro-Jerusalem, strategic settlements blocs along the Green Line, and settlements elsewhere in Judea and Samaria.

Of course, were France to press the Palestinians to accept Netanyahu's offer for talks - had it, indeed, pressed them to accept Ehud Olmert's generous peace offer in 2008 (or Barak's in 2001) - the settlement issue would have become moot.

The French complain that settlements make a contiguous Palestinian state unviable. But if the Palestinians were to negotiate in good faith, ways would be found to ensure Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank - notwithstanding strategic settlements.

Does France realistically expect that Israel will take a wrecking ball to Ma'aleh Adumim, or delink this Jerusalem suburb from the capital? Haven't previous Israeli governments made it clear that once final borders are negotiated, settlements on the Palestinian side will be removed? And, by the way, wouldn't a permanent accord necessitate connecting the West Bank to Gaza - across the sovereign territory of Israel? That's a formidable challenge, but one that Israel has not ducked.

France's backtracking on Hamas is also troubling. In March 2009, at Sharm e-Sheikh, Sarkozy urged Hamas to abandon violence, recognize Israel and embrace previous Palestinian commitments - the Quartet's conditions for its participation in the international community.

Hamas remained intransigent. Yet, oddly, when Kouchner addressed the UN last month, he spoke passionately about rebuilding Gaza and called for crossing points to be "permanently opened to all goods" - without once mentioning Hamas.

Worse, on June 15, when EU foreign ministers met to adopt a European Council policy approach to Palestinian-Israeli conflict issues, it was France that reportedly led in keeping the Quartet's three conditions from being included in the document.

On the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, Sarkozy favors an "arsenal" of negotiations, sanctions and "firmness." But he says he doesn't "want to hear anything else" - meaning talk of keeping the military option on the table. This would sound far more credible if France wasn't one of Iran's main trade partners in 2008.

Netanyahu arrives in Paris having articulated a position that reflects an Israeli consensus: Yes to a two-state solution, so long as one of those states is recognized as the national state of the Jewish people and the other is demilitarized.

France's settlement obsession is misplaced. It can best help resolve our conflict by urging the Palestinians to internalize Israel's legitimacy and to adopt positions, now championed by Netanyahu, that meet both peoples' essential needs.

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