The brief romance with George W. Bush which Nicolas Sarkozy worked so hard for after his election as French president a year ago has soured as the US president’s term winds down.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Paris sources report that its dying chord was sounded in the jarring conversation between Sarkozy and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice on Aug. 14, when she took him to task for the inept accord he framed to halt Russian-Georgian fighting over South Ossetia and his Middle East tactics.
Rice warned Sarkozy that Washington would not condone his trip to Damascus Sept. 3-4 or the two steps he proposed to initiate there:
1. The transformation of the Syrian capital into a bridge between the West and Iran in order to solve the Iranian nuclear impasse with French-brokered dialogue.
2. Elbowing his way into the indirect talks Turkey was mediating between Syria and Israel.
The French president informed the US Secretary that he was determined to go forward in the teeth of American objections.
Well before relations broke down between the White House and the Elysee, Bush officials had spotted two of Sarkozy’s top officials, his chief of staff, Claude Gueant, and his diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte, quietly hobnobbing with one of the circles of advisers around the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign.
The French president’s advisers also took the trouble of keeping up the pretense of cooperation with the Bush administration in Washington in day-to-day matters.
It soon became evident that the French president was more impressed by the advisers coming and going around Obama’s circle and their take on the Middle East than by the State Department and the White House National Security Council.
Rice puts a spoke in Sarkozy’s Damascus wheel
One group which influenced the Democratic candidate – and also the French president – is the Search for Common Ground, founded in 1982 to transform the way the world deals with conflict – away from adversarial approaches and towards collaborative problem-solving.
This group is headed by Tom Dine, a former leader of AIPAC, the Israeli lobby in Washington. Among its members are the former US ambassador to Israel, Sam Lewis, former US ambassador in Damascus, Theodor Nattuf, and Rob Malli, one of President Bill Clinton‘s former Middle East advisers.
Three months ago, the Democratic candidate was forced to deny any connection with Malli, after he said America ought to recognize and directly engage the Palestinian Hamas in dialogue.
Search for Common Ground Middle East experts are in direct contact with Dr. Samir A. Taki, a close personal friend of Syrian president Bashar Assad, and head of the Syrian team engaged in the indirect talks with Israel sponsored by Turkey.
Weeks after her showdown with Sarkozy, Rice arrived in Jerusalem on Aug. 26 for a one-day trip. Her visit appeared aimless, but in fact she used it to put a spoke in his wheel.
She laid before Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert an ultimatum: He must give up his Turkish-brokered talks with Syria and give all his attention to producing with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas a working paper for ceremonial presentation at the White House by President George W. Bush and the two partners.
Disobedience would result in the withdrawal of the White House’s support for Olmert and Israel. Since Bush is the only foreign leader still standing by the Israeli prime minister, who is up to his ears in corruption probes, he decided he had enough trouble and had better toe the line.
To avoid the appearance of bowing to US pressure, Olmert used legal issues as delaying tactics for not attending the fifth round of talks due to begin on Aug. 31. Yoram Turbowitz, the lead negotiator had resigned as Olmert’s chief of staff and lost his legal authority to represent Israel, the prime minister’s office said.
A four-way summit without a handle
In Damascus, Paris and Ankara, it was soon understood that the Israel-Syrian peace track was buried until a new president took office in Washington and a new prime minister took over from Olmert.
Before setting out for Damascus, therefore, the French president realized he had lost his chance to bulldoze the Israel-Syrian peace talks up to the next level and present it as a breakthrough for France.
Another of his schemes, to stage a four-way summit to act as the gateway to a bridge between the West and Iran over the nuclear impasse, also fell through.
Sarkozy’s plan was for four leaders to act as representatives of larger interests – Assad on behalf of Tehran, Turkish prime minister Tayyep Erdogan, who is familiar with Israel’s positions, the Qatari ruler Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani as rotating president of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and himself as holder of the rotating European Union presidency.
It turned out that his assumptions did not hold up.
Tehran had never designated Assad as its spokesman on nuclear issues; neither Saudi Arabia nor any of the Gulf emirates had authorized the Qatari ruler to represent them, Israel was absent, and Sarkozy spoke only for himself.
When he saw his plans going agley, the fast-talking French president declared Thursday, Sept. 4, on his way out of Damascus that he had never offered to mediate in the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.
What then was left of Sarkozy’s Grand Design? Trade.
France will sell Syrian airlines Airbus passenger planes; French firms will redecorate and modernize Damascus international airport and develop the Syrian seaports of Latakia and Tartous and the French oil giant Total won concessions to drill for oil in Syria.
It remains to be seen how many of these transactions hold up.