LONDON, Feb. 28 (JTA) Pity poor Lionel Jospin.
There he was, just 999 days into his tenure as France’s prime minister, when he stepped into the elephant trap of Middle Eastern political correctness.
Instead of joyous celebrations to mark his 1,000th day in office this week, the former economics professor was nursing the wounds he had suffered at the hands of rioting Palestinian students on the one hand and an infuriated French President Jacques Chirac on the other.
On a visit to Jerusalem late last week, Jospin dropped a remark that has, by all accounts, made the political earth move.
Not only had he mildly rebuked the Syrians for their foot-dragging in talks with Israel, but he had horror of horrors referred to the actions of Hezbollah, the Iranian-driven Party of God in Lebanon, as “terrorism.”
As chandeliers tinkled with indignation inside France’s pro-Arab presidential palace, students at the Palestinian Bir Zeit University in the West Bank went on the rampage, pelting the visiting French dignitary with rocks and attacking his vehicle as he beat an undignified retreat from the campus.
Not even the combined efforts of a Franco-Palestinian security guard could prevent him suffering from a slight head wound during the fracas.
After a brief stop in the Gaza Strip for an obligatory meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Jospin canceled the rest of his visit and flew home to a tongue-lashing from Chirac.
Chirac has assiduously used his presidency to carve out a Middle East role that places him firmly on the Arab side, leaving the Americans and the British to stake out the more ambiguous center ground in the Middle East badlands.
The Jospin affair is interesting for two reasons.
It points to the fragility of the concept of a common European voice on foreign affairs, and it once again highlights the continuing, seemingly irresistible, impulse for European politicians to imagine that when they visit Jerusalem they are playing on a world stage before a packed audience which, in a way, they are and that they must turn in an exceptional performance.
Chirac did it himself when he visited Jerusalem’s Old City, flash point of Middle East flash points, hamming it up for the television cameras as he famously screamed in English, to ensure maximum coverage at his heavy Israeli security detail to leave him alone. They sensibly refused.
There was a double message in Chirac’s gesture: He wanted to indicate to an Arab audience his displeasure with Israel in general and, particularly, to demonstrate the more serious political point that he did not regard the Israelis as having any standing in that most sensitive part of Jerusalem.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had his 15 minutes of fame in the mud of Har Homa, the site of a controversial new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, where he conspicuously met in March 1998 with a Palestinian official in violation of an agreement with the Israelis.
Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled his displeasure by canceling a state dinner with Cook. The foreign secretary later returned to London to receive a roasting from Prime Minister Tony Blair.
While Cook would happily wallow in the Jurassic Park of the old left in Britain, at least as far as the Arab-Israel conflict is concerned, it is Blair who puts his controlling stamp on British policy. While Blair is no Zionist dupe, he is smart enough to keep his options open and not indulge in primitive anti-Israel reflexes.
Any questions about why the Israelis so fiercely resist a more substantive European role in the peace process can be answered by examining the performances of Chirac and Cook.
One precondition for successful diplomacy in this intractable conflict is the ability to win the confidence of both sides to the dispute; another is the ability to exert influence, moral and material, on the parties.
So far the European Union has shown that it qualifies on neither count.
True, it has poured billions of apparently unaccountable dollars into the Palestinian cause including the funding of a state-of-the-art hospital in Gaza that has never treated a single patient because there is no money to run it.
But the European Union has failed to convince the Israelis, in large part due to the antics of Chirac and Cook, that it would make a credible and even-handed mediator.
Not that Israel expects a mediator to be a paid-up Zionist, but, in this volatile region, an honest broker must demonstrate a sensitivity to a single, elemental Israelis need: More territorial concessions must deliver more security, not greater vulnerability.
Which leads to the second lesson of the Jospin affair: The French predilection for the Arab position has far less to do with ideological commitment than a desire to win friends and, more especially, trade in the Arab world.
In this endeavor, France is competing directly with those, particularly Britain, whom it would call its “European partners.”
Given the competing impulses and economic imperatives of Europe’s national leaders, Javier Solana, the former NATO secretary-general and the European Union’s recently appointed high representative, will have a tough job delivering a common foreign policy for Europe.
Given the fates of Cook and Jospin, it will be a formidable challenge.