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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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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.

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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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