Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (l.) greets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Wednesday.

In Paris, Benjamin Netanyahu finds growing European doubt on Middle East peace

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in France on Wednesday, as President Nicolas Sarkozy's government wonders if Israel is interested in peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Europeans, and the French in particular, strong backers of Washington's efforts to broker a Mideast deal, are starting to register frustration with the White House's handling of Israel-Palestinian relations.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is threatening to quit in January, and efforts toward Israeli-Palestinian peace are completely stalled. Now the Europeans are searching for ways to push both Americans and Israelis to solve what they see as a deteriorating situation in the West Bank and Gaza, with the French leading the way.

Despite French President Nicolas Sarkozy's close ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Paris on Wednesday, Mr. Sarkozy told the Israeli leader that progress on peace with the Palestinians remains a priority, diplomats said.

Europeans do not have a strong hand, diplomats here admit. Yet the recent shift by President Barack Obama from demanding a "freeze" on settlement expansion in June to a call for "restraint" on settlements, is regarded by many here as a step in the wrong direction.

In Paris, President Obama's shift in position is seen as abrupt, and as the principal reason Mr. Abbas announced he was quitting, potentially depriving the peace process of the Palestinian leader that America, Europe and Israel must trust.

In Paris there's both understanding that Obama is tackling a historically intransigent problem and keen disappointment.

"The disillusion with the Americans is growing stronger. We are starting to feel an opportunity is being squandered, and there is growing irritation with Israel's stance,'' says Dominique Moisi, the founder of the French Institute for International Relations. "Time is running short. Do we want Hamas to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people? If not, the only person who can do something about that is Netanyahu."

While Mr. Moisi said the French are ready "in principle" to push their US allies, he asked "Will Netanyahu care?"

François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris says the Europeans are trying to push the Americans to arrive at a two state solution. "But no one knows what the American policy is at this point. Obama's position on a settlement freeze was unacceptable to Israel. Clinton's 180-degree reverse was unacceptable to the Palestinians, and it may have destroyed the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Off to Gaza

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expects to travel to Gaza next week. He appealed Monday for Mr. Abbas not to leave his post as head of the Palestinian Authority, as he has threatened to do. Ahead of Netanyahu's visit, Mr. Kouchner questioned publicly whether Israel is truly interested in making peace. One senior senator in Sarkozy's party, Phillipe Marini, issued a report this week stating it was time to consider removing the diplomatic "cordon sanitaire" around Hamas and end its isolation, though he said talk should be considered later.

The report came in the wake of a proposal by Shaul Mofaz, a leading Israeli opposition figure and former military leader, who said he would consider talks with Hamas as part of a peace plan – breaking a taboo.

"The Europeans are not in a position to create a breakthrough, but they are in a position to exert pressure on both sides," says Middle East scholar Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group in Washington.

Mr. Malley argues that Netanyahu might not normally be concerned about European pressure, but with the international focus on accusations of Israeli war crimes during the Gaza war, chilly Israeli relations with the White House, and Abbas threatening to leave, Netanyahu "is embattled and has to be a little concerned about Israel being isolated. Sarkozy has said he is close to Netanyahu, so it is not good for him if that is cooling down."

On Tuesday, Kouchner told French radio: "What really hurts me, and this shocks us, is that before there used to be a great peace movement in Israel. There was a left that made itself heard and a real desire for peace…. It seems to me, and I hope I am completely wrong, that this desire has completely vanished, as though people no longer believe in it."

Goldstone report

In the past decade European capitals have slowly shifted from traditional pro-Arab sentiment towards more convergence with Israel. But the position is not solid. European states took varying positions at the UN on the Goldstone Report, which catalogued alleged war crimes by Israel and Hamas during the Gaza war earlier this year. That war, in which 13 Israelis and about 1,400 Palestinians died, dealt a blow to Israel's image, as did the subsequent election of what is perceived here as an ultra conservative Israeli government.

If there is a consensus in Europe, it is against Israeli settlements. "Settlement activity is where Europe is united. If the fourth Geneva Convention means anything, settlements are a violation of international law," says Nicolas Vercken, the French director of Oxfam who has been lobbying Israel to allow Kouchner unrestricted access to Gaza.

Abbas' position has also been weakened. At America's behest, he briefly opposed sending the Goldstone Report to the UN human rights council in October, which angered many Palestinians. That, plus the White House's climbdown on a settlement freeze, has left Abbas "playing his last card," as one French diplomat put it.

Jean-François Legrain, a French specialist on Palestine, assessed Abbas' five year presidency this week as "catastrophic. I can think of no positive aspect. Gaza and the West Bank are separated from both a political and a humanitarian point of view. Negotiations with Israel are in a deadlock,'' he said. "The Palestinian authority has regressed to the point that it is now in the situation of the PLO before the Six Day war. It is weaker and has become a receptacle for the diverging interests of the Arab states and Western powers."

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