Sharon and Chirac – Partners in Distress

French president Jacques Chirac lavished brilliant fanfare and ceremonial warmth on a rare visitor to Paris, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, when he arrived Wednesday, July 28, on a state visit to France.
The ice-breaking symbolism was just that, no more than a thin veneer over the true state of Franco-Israel relations and the difficulties besetting the two leaders.
Chirac’s approval rating at home has plummeted to just over 33%, an unpopularity record unmatched by any previous French president in office. He is beleaguered at home and isolated in Europe. The plight of his foremost ally, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, sunk by his economic failures, reflects on Chirac’s own position. France’s traditional lead-role in the European Union is under siege by the British prime minister Tony Blair, who is determined to use his six-month EU presidency to shoot Britain to the top of the tree in Brussels in place of France.
Very few French political commentators see Chirac winning a third term as president should he run for re-election.
Israelis have not forgotten his pursuit of pro-Arab, anti-Israel policies and championship of the Palestinians over three decades. In the 1970s he sold a nuclear reactor to his friend, Saddam Hussein, over Israel’s protests; his other close Arab friend was Yasser Arafat whom he embraced throughout the Palestinian war against Israel without a word to persuade him to halt his campaign of suicidal terror. One of the French president’s senior advisers is the former UN secretary general Boutrous Boutros-Ghali, author of the interesting doctrine which holds that the Arab nation would be better advised to eschew military force for destroying the Jewish state and opt for peace diplomacy, or the salami method, for cutting Israel down to its “natural dimensions.”
Chirac may have changed his tune, but not his policies. Sharon used the visit to ask for French intercession in Lebanon to restrain the Hizballah terrorists from exploiting the Israeli pull-out to open a second front in support of the Palestinians. Chirac snubbed the request with diplomatic finesse. He argued that Iran which sponsors the Hizballah has no interest in stirring up trouble while engaging the West in talks on its nuclear program. He suggested that Sharon should rather look to Damascus as a source of danger. In other words, Lebanon was none of Israel’s business – even if Hizballah started shooting.
For the Israeli leader, the visit was a public relations exercise to vindicate his disengagement policy, which the French president naturally applauded, against the stubborn resistance put up by a domestic minority too substantial to shrug off, especially as it finds a strong echo inside the army. The floodlit coverage was played up by the French and Israeli media in the hope of diverting public attention in Israel from the agonizing national dispute and the serious crisis in Israel’s relations with the Bush administration.
The Americans are preparing a campaign to coerce Israel into following up its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank with further evacuations. Washington’s argument is that the trained forces the Sharon government has concentrated to root Israeli communities out of these two territories might as well go straight on to the West Bank and proceed with the removal of unauthorized outposts – and why not some settlements too?
US officials are privately referring to Disengagement B and Disengagement C which would entail the destruction of entire Israeli towns, Maaleh Adumim outside Jerusalem and Ariel further north. To soften up the Israeli government, sanctions have been in force for some months against Israel’s security and military organizations whose performance has begun to show damage. The dispute over the upgrading of Israeli drones sold to China is genuine but also being played to the hilt to push Israel into a corner. In other times and in a different climate of relations, the FBI’s Franklin-AIPAC spy probe would not have gone as far as it has. The Pentagon’s halt on routine supplies of replacement components for Israeli air force warplanes leaves Israel critically vulnerable should a security crisis suddenly flare.
The Bush administration is dragging out negotiations for sorely needed US aid to help finance the huge cost of Israel’s pull-back. Its economy cannot withstand another shock just when it is beginning to recover from the depredations of the five-year Palestinian terror war. Five years ago, the Clinton administration pledged $800m as America’s contribution to the Israeli army’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the cost of redeployment and refortifying its borders. This amount has never been delivered. These days too, Israeli officials are getting the cold shoulder in Washington. Sharon no doubt found the red carpet rolled out in Paris and the glittering guard of honor a welcome relief from the dour faces in Washington.

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