France's tireless Sarkozy strides into Middle East

The French president starts a Mideast tour Monday. Can he broker an end to another major crisis?

By , Staff writer

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    THE E.U. INITIATIVE: Benita Ferrero-Waldner (l.), EU external relations chief, and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, left for the Middle East on Sunday.
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    PARTNERS IN PEACE? French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Paris Thursday, when the two discussed possible solutions to the conflict in Gaza.
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy is no longer head of the European Union. But that has not stopped the peripatetic dynamo from a ceaseless search for a Middle East cease-fire.

Mr. Sarkozy goes to the region Monday, only a day after EU officials, sent by the Czech EU president, arrive in the midst of an Israeli ground assault on Gaza.

The blue light on the Eiffel Tower symbolizing the rotating EU presidency was switched off Dec. 31. But the light is not entirely out of Sarkozy's eye. With American diplomacy between administrations, and the EU mission divided on Gaza, the world's self-appointed "crisis leader" visits Egypt, the West Bank, Tel Aviv, Jordan, and Syria, where he will meet with President Bashar al-Assad, a prominent interlocutor with Hamas.

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At this stage of the conflict, few expect quick results. But Sarkozy may lay the groundwork for a later cease-fire. Certainly, his stint as the EU president gives credence to this effort. During his six-month turn, Sarkozy negotiated a cease-fire in the Russia-Georgia crisis in August, took center stage in the financial crisis of the fall, and earned wide plaudits for leadership in Europe. The French juggernaut was so successful that officials toyed with means of circumventing the Czech EU presidency, later backing off the idea.

But with the anger and agony of Gaza mounting, Sarkozy and his team see an another leadership opportunity. It would "be a shame" for the "dynamics of dialogue" that the French-EU diplomacy has achieved in the past six months to be wasted, a French minister told Le Figaro, the Paris newspaper.

Indeed, Sarkozy may have some cards to play – though talks during a ground assault are daunting, officials here admit. Sarkozy hosted Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Paris last week. Sarkozy works well with Washington, and French diplomacy has ties to Arabs, Palestinians, and the Islamist movement. He can talk with Syria. Moreover, Sarkozy's criticism of Israel's response to Hamas rockets puts him closer to core EU views than with Prague's. On behalf of the EU, the Czech government said after the Israeli ground attack began Saturday that it was a "defensive, not offensive" act. London and Paris disagreed immediately, dividing the EU mission, even before it got started. "France condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza as it condemns the continuation of rocket firing," the foreign ministry here said Saturday.

EU defense chief Javier Solana has proposed international monitors for Gaza. Israel may want more than that from the EU – including assistance in dismantling and prohibiting the honeycombs of tunnels in the nine-mile desert border between Gaza and Egypt that Israel says is the main route of military supplies and rockets for Hamas.

Sarkozy meets Monday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The two men are co-presidents of the Mediterranean Union, a new north-south EU organization.

"In the past 18 months, Sarkozy developed relations with both Israelis and Arabs," a high-ranking palace official says. "And this has given him something of a special position. When Sarkozy visited Syrian President Assad last spring, he was heavily criticized for meeting a dictator. But now he can visit Syria. I don't see many others doing that. We stress that if you don't talk with everyone, you can't make progress."

French officials Sunday stressed that "everything" must be tried to reinstitute a peace process or a cease-fire, and mentioned the meetings with Mr. Mubarak and Assad as significant.

Meanwhile, the EU team will be led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, and includes Mr. Solana, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and EU external relations chief Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Sarkozy will meet up with the EU team in the West Bank Monday, for lunch with Palestian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel says that Hamas rocket attacks must stop to bring peace. Hamas has said the crippling blockade on Gaza must stop before it relents – though a shift from an air attack to a ground assault changes the dynamics and strategy.

After Ms. Livni visited Paris, Israeli media praised Sarkozy, who counts Jewish heritage on his father's side of the family as "understanding" its position. Yet the palace also stated later in a call for an end to the bombing that it was a "temptation for Israel" to continue with military logic as in Lebanon in 2006, "in spite of the risk of a dead end."

When Sarkozy ran for president of France in 2007 he was regarded as a tough local politician and member of a younger generation that was lacking in world experience. He was not a graduate of the elite schools that produce French diplomats. But in the past six months that perception has largely withered away, with Sarkozy being seen as reconnecting France to Europe in the midst of a financial crisis that will need a Europe-wide solution.

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