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?
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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.
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.