ISRAEL - FRANCE

Sarkozy and Israel

Our Observer Joel Schalit shares his analysis on Sarkozy's ceasefire plan from an Israeli point of view, and what the move represents in terms with Europe's relationship with Israel and the Middle East, while the US remains the most influential ally to the Jewish state. Read more...

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Our Observer Joel Schalit shares his analysis on Sarkozy's ceasefire plan from an Israeli point of view, and what the move represents in terms with Europe's relationship with Israel and the Middle East, while the US remains the most influential ally to the Jewish state.

The US military analyst's assessment was predictably pessimistic. Asked whether Israel would agree to a ceasefire plan being worked out by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Anthony Cordesman told the BBC that it did not matter what kind of shuttle diplomacy the Europeans might be engaging in: Israel's military operations will only cease when its armed forces have accomplished all of their assigned objectives. Besides, the analyst respectfully chided his interviewer; Israel will only stop if America orders it to do so.

The script is all too familiar. Even though Cordesman was being asked what it would take to halt Israeli operations in Gaza, his reply could have been issued in response to any number of Israeli military campaigns over the last thirty years: Lebanon, Gaza, or the West Bank during the Al-Aksa Intifada. This time was no different. As Arab civilian casualties piled up, European states petitioned Israel to act with restraint, and Arab and EU delegates to the UN worked towards a ceasefire; America continued to shield Israel.

However, in a surprising act, just hours after of the BBC interview with Cordesman, Israel agreed to implement a daily three hour ceasefire in order to allow Gazan residents to obtain relief supplies delivered through corridors set up by Israel. Though not the full ceasefire sought by Sarkozy, the move certainly reflected pressure caused  by his diplomatic activities, along with intense Israeli embarrassment over the killing of forty in an attack on a UN school by Israeli forces the day before. This was the price they would have to pay for the error. Not to be sidelined, the Americans also gave their official blessings.

"His efforts are emblematic of

an increased European involvement"

So far, the French president's diplomatic initiative has received widespread international support. Proposing the deployment of international forces to locate and destroy smuggling tunnels along the Israel-Egypt border through which Hamas brings in its weaponry to Gaza, together with a French-led naval force to patrol Gaza's coast, Sarkozy's proposal echoes the solution imposed on Lebanon two years ago, with potentially superior measures to halt the flow of ammunition to Hamas.

Whether Sarkozy is ultimately successful, his efforts are emblematic of an increased European involvement in peacemaking efforts in the Middle East during the final years of the Bush administration. Beginning with the dispatch of substantial European troop contingents to UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon in 2006 to help create a buffer zone between Israel and Hezbollah, European governments have attempted to play an increasingly important role in managing the Arab-Israeli conflict. Under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy, France has gone to the greatest of lengths to make itself a permanent player in this regard.

France's effort to position itself as an arbitrator between Israel and its Arab neighbours is of particular significance for Israel's political establishment. Diplomatic and military allies until the 1967 Six Day War, when French President Charles de Gaulle decided to suspend military aid to Israel over its seizure of Arab lands, the Jewish state has since regretted its alienation from Europe, hoping that it might one day be able to ‘rejoin' it on its own terms. Closer, to be sure, without being so beholden to the vicissitudes of European liberalism that Israel could ever be compromised by disagreements over its foreign policy.

"The EU is simply filling a vacuum

created by the US"

The present Israeli government has welcomed Nicolas Sarkozy's diplomatic outreach, seeing it as an opportunity for helping bring Israel back into the European fold after a near forty year spell of living almost exclusively under the American umbrella. Winding up his tenure as the president of the European Union with the EU having significantly upgraded its relationship with Israel - granting Israel observer status to the European Union, along with forging closer defence, security and economic ties - it would be hard to disconnect these developments from the foreign policy ambitions of its recently departed president.

Yet, despite this new intimacy with Israel, there's a very strong sense that all that's actually happening is that the EU, led by its most aggressive member states, is simply filling a vacuum created by the US, as it winds down its occupation of Iraq, and turns its attention towards putting its own house in order after the collapse of its banking and real estate sectors.

Hearing German Chancellor Angela Merkel blame the present situation in Gaza 'clearly and exclusively' on Hamas, and the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg state that ''Hamas has excluded itself from serious political dialogue' is not exactly encouraging. Still, one might hope that such utterances are strategic rather than reflecting a typically American approach to Israeli politics; that, for example, such statements might be intended to reassure anxious Israeli politicians, who for now might need to have their new European partners sound more American than the Americans do. Certainly Sarkozy, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have made equally numerous ‘pro-Israel' statements, like threatening Iran with military action if it develops nuclear weaponry. Nevertheless, the brief respite engineered today is light-years better than anything that could have been dreamt up by the US these past eight years. Here's hoping there's a lot more where this came from."