Refusing to exit, France's Sarkozy grabs Gaza spotlight

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2009 

LONDON — Supporters say that he's energetic, dedicated and visionary. Critics call him hyperactive, aggressive and vain. Either way, it's been hard to ignore French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In a burst of shuttle diplomacy aimed at ending the fighting in Gaza, Sarkozy once again pushed his way to the center of an international crisis.

A question being asked on both sides of the Atlantic, though, is whose interests he was representing. The blue lights that bathed the Eiffel Tower in Paris for six months to mark France's presidency of the European Union may have been extinguished Dec. 31, when the Czech Republic assumed the rotating position, but Sarkozy wasn't about to abandon the limelight.

A second question is what his diplomacy has accomplished.

He was still at the center of the action Friday, in part filling a vacuum created by the absence of active American diplomacy. After Israel and Hamas ignored a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate and durable cease-fire, Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak continued talks over how to stop weapons from being smuggled through tunnels from Egypt to Gaza. Israel insists that the flow of arms be stopped before it will agree to a cease-fire.

Sarkozy had proposed stationing an international force at the Egyptian-Gaza border to stem the flow of weapons, but questions about his proposal abound. Egypt objects to an international force on its side of the border, and few countries would want to assume the risk of stationing troops on the Palestinian side. The skepticism echoes the criticism of the French president's mediation efforts during last summer's dispute between Georgia and Russia.

Sarkozy tends to "parachute in and then leave the scene," said James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington research center. "He's such a gadfly he's everywhere, but he's not necessarily around for the extensive follow-up that's needed." Phillips said professional diplomats were better suited than politicians were for such sensitive negotiations.

In the Middle East, Sarkozy sparked confusion over who was speaking for whom in Europe. The French president and members of a separate, official EU delegation practically bumped into each other as they jetted between capitals earlier this week. The EU delegation, headed by the Czech foreign minister, included Sarkozy's own foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, as well as the Czech and Swedish foreign ministers — representing a troika of current, past and upcoming EU presidents — along with the EU foreign minister and the president of the European Commission, Javier Solana.

"It borders on the comical," said Clara O'Donnell, a Middle East expert at the Center for European Reform in London, referring to the simultaneous missions. O'Donnell said one reason that "Israel doesn't see Europe as a serious player in the peace process" is that it's unable to speak with a single voice.

The Czechs declined to criticize Sarkozy publicly. "Neither one side or the other should complain," said a spokeswoman for the EU presidency who was reached by telephone in Prague, when she was asked about the simultaneous European peace missions. "The cause is the same, the message is the same." Privately, though, Czech and other European leaders were said to be furious at the French president's independent peace initiative.

"I find it highly damaging for Europe," said Gunilla Herolf of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, speaking of Sarkozy. "It's not according to EU rules that he goes off on his own and has no official role."

There was grudging acknowledgement in many quarters, however, that Sarkozy has made more progress than the official EU delegation has. If the French president gets results in the Middle East, said Charles Grant, an expert on European issues at the Center for European Reform, "people will forget this brashness, this crassness, this rudeness."

Sarkozy has some advantages as a negotiator. He has credibility with Arab countries, including Syria, with whom the Bush administration refuses to talk.

He's also "seen as the most pro-Israeli French president in a long time," O'Donnell said. He's called attention to the plight of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier with dual French-Israeli citizenship who was kidnapped in 2006 and is being held in Gaza by Hamas.

In a speech last summer to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Sarkozy presented himself as "a friend of Israel," O'Donnell noted, but he hasn't been afraid to criticize the Israelis. France has Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities, and Sarkozy has Jewish heritage on his father's side.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:

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Rejecting truce, Olmert vows 'iron fist' against Hamas

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