Skepticism over 'breakthrough' Middle East peace plan

London report of Israeli-Palestinian plan linked to Iran sanctions disputed by European experts.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (r.) met with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday in London.
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) shakes hands with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell during their meeting in London on Wednesday.

A report by the Guardian newspaper that Israel is close to a White House Middle East peace deal – linking a partial freeze on Israeli settlements to sweeping sanctions on Iran – has captured diplomatic attention in Europe, though some details are being met with skepticism.

Most experts doubt the Obama team is ready to fuse the two crucial policies, particularly in the aftermath of Iranian elections.

Yet with French president Nicolas Sarkozy today suggesting “reinforced sanctions” on Iran if Tehran’s nuclear policy does not change by a Sept. 20 UN summit, and expressing support for a Palestinian state and immediate freeze on settlements – the White House may have a partner in Middle East dealmaking. Under Sarkozy, France has taken an ever tougher line against Iran’s nuclear and missile policy – partly to close the earlier gap with the Americans over Iraq, and partly because France and other European nations have crept closer to Israel.

Yet with authority in Tehran now in flux, European diplomats say, it is far too early to pose clear sanctions policies since their outcome could in the end hurt moderates and others seeking reform.

"Sanctions are not part of any headlines in the US, France, and Britain, right now," says François Heisbourg, author of "Iran, The Choice of Arms" and adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "We don't know who is in charge in Iran. We don't know who has a brief to do what. We don't know consequences. It's difficult to do diplomacy when you don't know who is affected by your policy.

"But the French support sanctions, as an alternative to bombing. As Voltaire said, it's a terrible idea, but what's the alternative?"

If anything, the French position on Iran's missile and nuclear ambitions has become tougher than the American one – though not widely advertised.

"It is hard for France to have a more hard-line position than the US, since that puts France in the target line of Tehran," says Clément Therme, an Iranian expert at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. "The French position is weak on Iran and will follow any move from the Obama administration, I'm sure of that. The British are in the same position as the French. But there is no unity in the EU on Iran. Without the Americans competing there, everyone has interests."

Sarkozy, in an annual talk to the gathered French ambassadors, had sharp words for Iran, saying the same leaders that claimed its recent elections were honest and fair are also those who say its nuclear program is peaceful. “Who can believe them?” he asked.

If there is a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, French officials confirm that they are eager to host the talks. Russia, as the Guardian reported, is also keen to host any such talks.

Skepticism in Europe

In Europe, deep skepticism exists that Israelis and Palestinians are politically or psychologically ready to find serious common cause – either on the ground, or between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet Monday's story in the London-based Guardian outlining a breakthrough by President Obama in forging Israeli-Palestinian talks was widely translated and reprinted on the continent. It claims Israel's cooperation with Mr. Obama is based on gaining tough oil and gas sanctions against Iran, which allows the Israeli leader to sell the idea at home under the oft-stated formula that Iran is an "existential threat" to Israel, whereas settlements are not.

On Tuesday, after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "more optimistic" about the Middle East peace process, but said that Israeli settlements remained an obstacle. Sarkozy told French ambassadors, similarly, that while Israel is a friend, “the truth is, there can be no peace while settlements continue.” Netanyahu also met with US envoy George Mitchell in London, and will head to Berlin for a meeting Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

US stuck on settlements

Mideast expert Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group in Washington, among others, doubts a clear linkage between Iran and Israel in the current Obama plans, feeling that the Guardian and other news reports were simply "amalgamating" evidence that is inconclusive.

"Netanyahu can use Iranian sanctions to sell this, but I don't think that Israel and Iran are yet factually related in the White House. These are still parallel matters.

"The question marks [on an Israeli-Palestinian deal] are as sharp as ever, we aren't anywhere near the heart of the matter," Mr. Malley says. "But the Obama people were getting stuck on settlements. It wasn't working so it looks like they decided to pivot, declare victory, and try to move as far as possible."

One Harvard University scholar reached by phone in Israel, who spent the summer in Gaza and Hebron, argues that a US-brokered deal that does not adequately challenge Israel's domination of Palestinians on the ground, in the wake of the Gaza bombing, will not satisfy the Palestinian need. The scholar asks: "How can anyone in their right mind consider 'a partial freeze on settlements' a fair exchange for potentially destroying the Iranian economy?"

Editor’s note: Since the story was first published, Nicolas Sarkozy commented on France’s policy toward sanctions on Iran. Those comments have been added.

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