News Analysis: Chirac’s Quest in the Mideast; a Role for Europe or Just for France?

French President Jacques Chirac used his visit to the Middle East last week to campaign for European co-sponsorship of the Arab- Israeli peace process.

But it appeared questionable whether Chirac’s Mideast quest was in the name of Europe or was instead aimed at bolstering France’s role as an ally of the Arab states.

Already deeply distrusted by Israel for France’s pro-Arab policies, Chirac returned home after a six-day tour as nothing less than a hero of the Arab world.

In Beirut, a street was named after him, and a Palestinian couple called their first-born son “Jacques Chirac Jibril” in his honor.

While Chirac’s trip may have boosted France’s lucrative trade prospects with the Arab world, it appeared that Chirac shot himself in the foot in his drive to install the European Union along with the United States as a negotiating partner in the peace process, an idea firmly rejected by Jerusalem and Washington.

During his visit to the Middle East, Chirac called on Israel to back the creation of a Palestinian state and to return the Golan Heights to Syria, stances firmly rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And while he addressed the Palestinian legislative council, he refused to address the Israeli Knesset.

By appearing during his trip more openly pro-Arab than ever before, Chirac clearly alienated Israel, which would have to accept European co-sponsorship of the peace process.

During a joint news conference with Chirac last week, Netanyalm made it clear that he did not support a European role.

And in Washington, State Department officials were asking European foreign ministers to let the United States continue its role as sole mediator in the Middle East.

But Arab leaders, particularly Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, feel that Europe would counterbalance what they see as U.S. partiality toward Israel.

In a clear bid for increased European involvement, Arafat was scheduled to visit Norway this week, after which he was set to travel to Ireland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

But analysts here question whether Europe, the biggest financial donor to the Palestinian Authority, really has the stomach for a beefed-up role in the Middle East — not to mention the ability.

Further clouding the picture, Great Britain and Germany, which are the most powerful E.U. members along with France, back the U.S. role in the Middle East.

“I think that deep in their hearts, certain European partners are not really convinced that Europe should seek the role of mediator,” Alain Dieckhoff, a Middle East specialist at the Paris-based Center for International Relations Studies, said in an interview.

“There is a difference in approach between Chirac and the others — Britain because of very old, traditional bonds to the United States, and Germany, for historical reasons,” he said.

Daniel Vernet, a European specialist for the French daily Le Monde, said the difficulty of bringing 15 countries to a consensus would undercut Europe’s ability to have an effective role as mediator.

“Europe is not in a position to play a role. On the basic principles – - everyone should make a effort to push the peace process forward and land must be traded for peace — they agree,” Vernet said.

“The idea that divides them is what kind of political action to take. That’s why their initiatives never amount to much.”

Leon Brittan, vice president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, said during a visit last week to Paris that Europe could not play an effective diplomatic role in the Middle East because it lacked a unified stance.

“The conditions aren’t there yet” for an enhanced European role, Brittan said. “If we work together and abstain from independent action, we will be able to work with the United States in this region. Without that we won’t succeed.”

Europe’s inability to overcome internal divisions were evident in its mixed reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted in late September, leaving 76 people from both sides dead and hundreds more wounded.

The European Union responded by first issuing a tough statement rebuking Netanyahu’s government for failing to meet its obligations in the peace process.

But then Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring traveled to Israel — at France’s insistence — with a letter that turned out to contain a much watered-down European position.

Chirac has closely modeled his Middle East policy after that of his mentor, President Charles de Gaulle, who reasserted France’s influence in the Arab world and, after the 1967 Six-Day War, imposed an anti-Israel embargo that dogged relations between the two countries for years.

Like de Gaulle, Chirac is determined to extend Europe’s influence in world affairs.

But coming in the wake of years of U.S. diplomatic activity in the region, Chirac’s statements and actions last week may well be compared to a bull in a china shop.

Chirac’s headline-making run-in last week with Israeli security guards during a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City played well with the Arabs, as well as with the French, who like to see their leaders stand up to foreign powers – - particularly the United States and Israel.

But his proclamations about a Palestinian state and the Golan Heights may not only toughen U.S. and Israeli opposition to E.U. involvement in the negotiations. It may also have hurt France’s position within the European Union.

Dominique Moisi, director of the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations, said Chirac’s “cavalier, spectacular methods” might have isolated France from its E.U. partners.

“As much as Europe is frustrated at paying for the peace process while being excluded politically, the Europeans don’t include themselves in what Chirac has just done,” Moisi said. “In the end, most [European leaders] will go with their loyalty to America.”

For his part, Philippe Moreau Defarges, a European affairs specialist with the French Institute for International Relations, sees Chirac’s drive for increased E.U. involvement as a gamble he cannot lose.

If Chirac succeeds in convincing his European partners to seek an enhanced diplomatic role, his own position will be strengthened.

If he fails, his image in the Arab world will nonetheless improve for his having made the effort.

Chirac “has very little chance of being able to persuade his European partners, but I don’t think it really bothers him,” Moreau Defarges said. “He’s kind of ambivalent. He wants Europe to be involved, but above all, it’s France he wants involved.”

E.U. foreign ministers were scheduled to meet in Luxembourg this week to discuss the appointment of a special envoy to the Middle East.

But Morean Defarges said the envoy would have merely a symbolic role.

“He won’t have much to say. He’ll say what Chirac said and no more: that the peace process must continue and everyone should make an effort,” he said.

“Everyone will receive him politely, saying, `Bonjour, monsieur. What do you have to say?’ and then `Au revoir, monsieur.’”

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