Impatient with U.S. efforts, France makes Mideast push

PARIS — 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 Wednesday, Sarkozy told the Israeli leader that progress on peace with the Palestinians remains a priority, diplomats said.

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

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

There's understanding in Paris 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,'' said 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 Moisi said the French are ready "in principle" to push their U.S. allies, he asked "Will Netanyahu care?"

Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris said 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. (Secretary of State Hillary) Clinton's 180-degree reverse was unacceptable to the Palestinians, and it may have destroyed the Palestinian Authority," he said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expects to travel to Gaza next week. He appealed Monday for Abbas not to leave his post. Ahead of Netanyahu's visit, 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," said Middle East scholar Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group in Washington.

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's not good for him if that is cooling down."

In the past decade European capitals have slowly shifted from traditional pro-Arab sentiment towards more convergence with Israel. The position isn't solid, however. European states took varying positions at the United Nations 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," said Nicolas Vercken, the French director of Oxfam who's been lobbying Israel to allow Kouchner unrestricted access to Gaza.

Abbas' position also has been weakened. At America's behest, he briefly opposed sending the Goldstone Report to the U.N. 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-Francois Legrain, a French specialist on Palestine, assessed Abbas' five-year presidency this week as "catastrophic.

"I can think of no positive aspect,'' 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."