France pushing for continued, strong role in Mideast region

By John Keating,KUNA,

PARIS : The French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy is working solidly, both with Western partners and Middle East countries, to maintain its renewed status in the Middle East region and stay on as a vital partner to the peace process amid clear signs the US is reactivating its efforts in this area.

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After Sarkozy high-profile visit to the region following the Israeli attacks against Gaza on December 27, France took a high-profile role in attempting to broker a cease-fire and undertook what it called “a French mediation” with all parties except Hamas.

Using Egypt as it principal pillar, the French were able to take credit for having helped with a cease-fire, but also for having pressured Israel on humanitarian issues and for seeking to impose an arms blockade on Hamas.

France is now eager to perpetuate that impetus by keeping constant contact with the involved parties and also making it clear there is no gap between the US Envoys position on the Gaza conflict, for instance, or on the broader peace process which has all but fallen apart since Annapolis in November 2007.

Before Mitchells arrival here on February 2, the French made a point of expressing their satisfaction that he would stop off in Paris on his way back to Washington.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said: “We are very happy he is coming.” The fact that Mitchell is not expected to hold any major press events or briefings here is also a point of satisfaction for the French, who dont want to be upstaged Monday by strong statements from a US official on their soil, especially on the day that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are meeting with Sarkozy later the same the day.

“I dont think the Americans want to talk (publicly) here,” one French diplomat told KUNA on condition of anonymity. “I think Mitchell just wants to convey that the US is listening right now.” Another Western diplomat with knowledge of Mitchells program confirmed that there were no briefings for the press and thus Mitchell would reserve what he had to say for French officials.
Mitchell, 75, who has just been appointed by US President Barack Obama, will meet both Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and London is also on his European schedule.
In addition to welcoming the Envoys appointment, France noted the common ground between the US Envoys approach to the Middle East conflict and the French-inspired, European Union ideas put forward last November to President Obamas incoming team.

Mitchell stated need for progress in the peace process, and the way this can be achieved links in with the essence of the proposal and suggestions that the French EU Presidency put forward to the United States last November on behalf of the 27 EU countries.
Diplomats here said that what they are hearing from Mitchell “corresponds exactly to what we asked of the US.” This, for the French, essentially means a continued role for France and Europe in the region and the French fully intend to exploit their close ties with Egypt and other Arab states, like Qatar, to remain a key player.

France has also thrown in its lot with Abbas, for better or for worse, but nonetheless recognizes he has been weakened by the latest conflict in Gaza.

Recently, Kouchner was overheard by KUNA to say “Abbas is vital,” and the survival of the Palestinian President is seen as crucial to the ability of France, and indeed the United States, to broker a peace with Israel in the long term.

While France is showing more flexibility of Hamas, especially on contacts with Hamas officials if they join a national unity government, it is being stressed here that this can only happen if Hamas renounces violence and if it accepts to join the national unity government “under the authority of President Mahmoud Abbas,” a diplomat said here.

Nonetheless, only 10 days ago, a senior delegation from the French Senate, led by Senate President Jean-Francois Poncelet, went to Damascus and met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, which indicates contacts could be opening up.

Diplomatic sources said that France is also in contact with Qatar on the subject of Hamas, which would explain the meeting Monday afternoon with Sheikh Hamad and Sarkozy, only one hour or so ahead of the meeting between Abbas and the French leader. This is another unconditional sign of support for the Palestinian President who appears weakened because of the Gaza conflict and perceived ambiguity by Abu Mazen at the outset of the Israeli attacks which killed over 1,300 people, including more than 400 children.

In addition to supporting Abbas and putting pressure on Hamas to conform to Fatah positions on peace and negotiations with Israel, France, in a rare move, has sent a navy frigate to the waters off Gaza to contribute to a blockade of arms smuggling into the Palestinian territory.

France is also pushing for EU monitors both for the Rafah crossing into Egypt, with the possibility of extending this deployment to the other crossing points, although that is unlikely to get Israeli consent.

The toughest position France has been dealing with in many ways is the humanitarian issue and efforts to convince Israel to fully cooperate in allowing bother international and French supplies into Gaza.
This has led to diplomatic tension as Israeli soldiers have fired warning shots on a convoy carrying the French Consul General and other diplomats, having blocked them for over six hours when they were leaving Gaza at the Eretz crossing point.

Israel has also refused to allow some French goods into Gaza, notably a water-purification plant, which had to be brought back to France at great expense last week.

France summoned the Israeli Ambassador to Paris last week to underline unhappiness with Israels “behaviour,” yet the French fundamentally agree with the Israeli goal of choking off weapons supplies to Hamas.

In exchange, they want the “lasting opening” of all crossing points, a move that appears difficult to image at this time.

For Abbas, Sarkozy will be emphasizing the need absolute need for national reconciliation, but without a direct “official” channel of communication with Hamas, it is difficult to see how the French can play an important role here, except for passing messages through Egypt or Qatar to Hamas.

Informed sources told KUNA here that France had opened up an “informal” channel of communications with Hamas last year and that two meetings were arranged via intermediaries with local contacts.

The source, who sought anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that a former senior official had met with senior Hamas officials in Gaza to explore ways out of the impasse and whether the Palestinian organization would accept to recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to the 1993 Israeli-PLO accords.

Little or no progress came out of the meetings and the blockade and boycott of Hamas continued.

The source said that a similar attempt to test the temperature was carried out in Damascus by the Americans, with the same result, but this could not be independently confirmed by the Americans.

So it appears that France is, so far, relatively happy with the latest developments and the fact that the US has so quickly become re-engaged in the Middle East file, especially that Obama seems to want European cooperation on regional issues. In effect, a French diplomat said here, the latest developments mean “that the US is prepared to work with us on the Middle East file. (end) jk.ajs KUNA 021550 Feb 09NNNN