PARIS (JTA) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy is slated to be the first French president since Francois Mitterrand to speak at the Knesset in a much-anticipated visit to the Jewish state next week.
Just weeks ahead of the June 22-24 visit, Sarkozy met with Hezbollah and other Lebanese political leaders in Beirut following the election of a new president in Lebanon. He then extended an enthusiastic invitation to Syrian President Bashar Assad to join the Bastille Day parade July 14 following a Mediterranean Union summit in Paris.
The French Jewish umbrella group CRIF “deplored” the president’s eagerness to reach out to Syrian and Lebanese supporters of terrorism, French politicians questioned his judgment and the Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Joumblatt, called the Bastille Day invite a “shame for the French people.”
Yet amid Sarkozy’s seemingly contradictory gestures and diplomatic surprises, one clear trend is emerging: The French president is seeking to position himself as a broker in the ever-elusive quest for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
His position was bolstered this week when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in an interview in the French daily le Figaro, raised speculation about a direct meeting with Assad on the sidelines of the upcoming Paris summit. Assad immediately rejected the suggestion, saying such a meeting was premature.
Olmert also suggested that Israel should open direct talks with Lebanon, a position that Sarkozy presumably would be in a good position to help advance.
While they may disagree over specific policy moves, both Israeli and French Jewish officials – at least publicly – are applauding Sarkozy’s efforts at peacemaking.
“Sarkozy never claimed that being friends with Israel meant turning his back on the Arabs,” said Daniel Shek, Israel’s ambassador to France. “On the contrary, for Israel to have trustworthy friends in the Arab world is an asset because it is people like that who can serve as bridges between Israel and the Arab world.”
Olmert, in his le Figaro interview on the eve of Sarkozy’s visit to Israel, said the relationship with France “is better than it has been over the past years” and there is “a strong potential for even better relations based on my friendship with M. Sarkozy and our shared views.”
He also cited previous remarks by Sarkozy that “Israel was the miracle of the 20th century. That is something that we’ll never forget, and his words will remain in the hearts of Jews and Israelis.”
Indeed, Shek said Sarkozy’s visit would highlight the intimate friendship between Israel and France since Sarkozy’s presidential term began one year ago.
“The first semester of 2008 will certainly go into history as one of the most spectacular for Israel’s image in France,” the ambassador said. “There might be question marks in the minds of some people, but from an Israeli point of view, when we have questions, we ask them and we usually get a satisfactory answer.”
One outcome of Sarkozy’s recent initiatives is that Israel and Syria “may find themselves in the same space, which is in itself a significant thing,” Shek said, referring to the Mediterranean Union summit July 13.
The meeting is expected to launch discussions on how to strengthen cultural, economic and environmental bonds among countries that rim the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel and Syria concluded a second round of Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks this week and reportedly agreed to continue the negotiations in July to determine the fate of the Golan Heights.
Israeli officials have said that any peace deal with Syria would require Damascus to distance itself from Iran and sever ties with terrorist groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Both Syria and Iran support both groups.
Speaking of Syria and the Mediterranean Union project, Olmert said in the le Figaro interview, “Any mechanisms that can bring countries together that normally do not cooperate are a step in the right direction.
“When we have reached an understanding with Syria on the specific agenda and on the points that we will discuss, it will be time to start direct contacts,” he said. “We’re not far from them. If both parties are serious, we should sit around one table to talk soon.”
Assad, however, appeared to reject any imminent meeting.
“This is not like drinking tea,” he was quoted as saying during a visit to India. “The meeting between me and the Israeli prime minister will be meaningless without the technocrats laying the foundation, without reaching the final stage.”
For Sarkozy, the opportunity to play host and broker in the region is appealing.
France, which once boasted strong ties to Syria and Lebanon, distanced itself from Syria in 2005 following the regime’s suspected role in assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
A French presidential spokesman said that while Syria was invited to participate in the Mediterranean summit to focus on issues such as the environment, water and energy, Mideast peace is on the French mind as well.
The invitation “is also accompanied by the role that France can play as a possible facilitator in the region,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.
The Mediterranean Union summit will take place before France’s independence day, and Assad’s presence at the summit alone would have caused less of a stir than his presence at the country’s birthday celebration. Yet analysts say the president shocked the nation by extending the invitation to the following day, a gesture typical of Sarkozy’s political nature.
“The July 14th invitation is scandalous,” said Bernard Hourcade, Middle East analyst for the National Center for Scientific Research. “But Sarkozy hopes that scandal will have a positive outcome.”
France’s traditional cultural and economic ties with the Middle East, and its willingness to dialogue with nations cut off from the United States, bolsters its ability to negotiate peace deals in the region, Hourcade said.
“France tries to hold talks with countries like Syria, which the U.S. can’t do, because it doesn’t have the cultural links that France has,” he said. “So France would like to be an intermediary between a firm U.S. style and a European one that is less pragmatic.”
Prime Minister Francois Fillon, speaking on France 2 TV network, said that no one should be shocked by Sarkozy’s outreach to Syria.
“Syria kept its promises in the Lebanese conflict,” he said. “What should be shocking is that we don’t try anything to try to create conditions for peace in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean.”
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner went further, saying Tuesday at the National Assembly, “We rejoice that the Syrians are speaking to the Israelis.”
If Assad and Olmert want to talk directly at the upcoming Mediterranean summit in July, Kouchner said, “It will be possible to do so if they wish.”
Emmanuel Weintraub, a CRIF board member, played down his group’s denunciation of the invitation to Assad, saying it “was not a tragedy.”
Speaking more generally of Sarkozy, Weintraub said, “I don’t think there is any confusion, except that he does things very quickly. He’s like our fast trains – he moves very quickly, and sometimes things happen and you’re unaware.”
While the Paris outreach to Syria is out of step with America’s, both Sarkozy and President Bush during the U.S. leader’s visit to Paris last week reiterated their shared commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
“It is an unacceptable threat to world stability, especially due to the current Iranian president’s repeated statements,” Sarkozy said at the presidential palace.
“Iran is one of the issues where Israel and France really see eye to eye,” said Shek, the Israeli ambassador. He added that the topic would be on the agenda during Sarkozy’s visit to Israel.
Sarkozy currently has no plans to visit any other countries during his visit to the region, his office said, but he is expected to visit Bethlehem in the West Bank.
Analysts suggested the biggest gap between Israel and France centered around Hezbollah. France, like the European Union, does not recognize the Syrian-backed group as a terrorist organization, while the United States and Israel do.
Indeed, the presidential spokesman said that France shares the E.U. view that Hezbollah is a “component of Lebanese political leadership.”
Shek also cited Hezbollah as a main area of disagreement.
“We don’t believe Hezbollah should be recognized at any official level,” he said. “Sure, Hezbollah is an important component in Lebanese towns, but it’s also a component that shoots rockets at Israel.”