Nov 21 2013

France charm offensive alienates Palestinians

Published by at 11:49 am under Articles,Palestinian politics



By Daoud Kuttab

For years, France has been a source of fascination for Palestinians and Arabs for its courage to take positions that run contrary to those of many in Europe and the United States. Palestinians still vividly remember the 1996 visit by former French President Jacques Chirac, when Israeli soldiers insisted on accompanying him to one of Islam’s holiest mosques — Al-Aqsa — as a way of declaring Israeli sovereignty over it. At the time, Chirac uncharacteristically screamed in English at Israeli security: “This is a provocation. Do you want me to get on my plane and go back to France?”

Much has changed since then, including the election of Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, who have not shown similar courage in their support for Palestinian rights. Israeli officials have repeatedly praised Israel’s relations with France, despite France’s vote at the UN in favor of Palestinian statehood in 2012. Even the physical manhandling of a French diplomat in September failed to shake up this unusual bond that has formed between France and Israel.

This Israeli love fest was put on display this week during the state visit by Hollande, who was given the special privilege of addressing the Israeli Knesset. The red-carpet treatment given to the French president was due in large part to his staunch refusal to sign on to the US-led compromise on the Iranian nuclear agreement.

News coming out of the French-Israeli talks, however, showed that despite the anti-Iranian rhetoric, Hollande and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are still far apart, as the French appear to be willing to accept some form of nuclear power for Iran — with the exception of the Arak plant — while Netanyahu wants to completely destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Iran’s insistence on building nuclear power for civil use pales against Israel’s own nuclear weaponry and its refusal to discuss or join any monitoring of its own facilities.

Despite the world interest in the French position on Iran, Palestinians were watching Hollande’s words to see if there was anything new he had to offer regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Nothing appeared different, despite claims by Hollande that Paris is planning a new initiative in regard to the slow-moving peace process.

A question during the Hollande-Netanyahu press conference revealed the French leader’s failure to take a public stand on the issue of settlements. Hollande was asked if he was willing to publicly repeat the description by US Secretary of State John Kerry of settlements as “illegitimate.” Hollande failed to utter the same term, preferring to say that France calls on all to refrain from any provocations. Previously, France had taken a leading role in criticizing Israel on its settlement activities. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said as recently as December 2012 that Israel’s plans to build the controversial E1 settlement near Jerusalem was a “new area of colonization.” Previous French officials have also been continuously critical of Israel’s settlement activities.

France under Hollande has not only opposed any sanctions on Israel, but during his visit, Hollande signed a number of bilateral agreements. This has further angered Palestinians, who feel that this is yet another sign of rewarding the aggressor rather than holding it accountable for its continued acts in violation of international law and even the official foreign policy of France and the European Union. The EU is scheduled to begin new guidelines early in 2014 that prevent Israeli companies in settlements from receiving prizes, grants or financing from the continent.

Press reports have referred to France’s economic situation as a possible basis for its policy. Numerous reports have said that the current French position regarding Iran seems to be fueled by financial interests in Saudi Arabia. France is a huge exporter of wheat and weapons to Saudi Arabia, which has been a staunch opponent to any nuclear development in Iran and has therefore pushed France to take a hard-line position regarding compromises on Iran’s nuclear plans.

In choosing a topic that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries deeply care about, Hollande calculates that his government will not be hurt too much by its gushing remarks in Israel.

Hollande will make the mandatory visit to Ramallah and meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and he will repeat the longstanding French and European positions on the Middle East conflict. However, for many in Palestine, the romantic expectations that France will somehow help play an important role in balancing US support for Israel has evaporated.

Palestinian public opinion, which had for a long time counted on France and Europe to counter Washington, will be once again disappointed. This disappointment with France will result in Paris losing its credibility as a potential reliable broker in talks, playing into the hands of Abbas, who prefers to place all his eggs in the US basket.

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