On the Middle East, France is a tale of two countries

Click photo to download. Caption: U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and French President François Hollande in the White House on May 18, 2012. Credit: Pete Souza/White House photo.

 

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

The French, to the casual observer, are a real enigma when it comes to foreign policy. Sometimes it seems like they can be truly helpful, whereas other times they are truly awful.

Take Iran. On the question of the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions, France has retained a healthy skepticism regarding the current negotiating process being pushed by the Obama administration. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was crystal clear that any deal with Iran that didn’t grant international inspectors unfettered access to nuclear sites wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on. 

“The best agreement, if you cannot verify it, it’s useless,” Fabius declared. If only Obama were so unblinkered and so blunt on the nuclear issue.

Yet we shouldn’t get overly carried away by Francophilia. Yes, France is a welcome counterweight to the enthusiasm of the White House for a deal with the Tehran regime that looks like Swiss cheese in terms of what the Iranians can get away with. But France has good reasons for adopting this stance, and it’s important to remember that they have very little to do with supporting the spread of open, democratic societies in the Middle East, or with standing up for Israel’s national security.

Historically, France has never liked playing second fiddle to the Americans—a sentiment that goes all the way back to the time of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. But this has more to do with strategic calculation than emotion. The France that takes a harder line against the Iranians than do the Americans is the same France that, in 2003, vociferously opposed the American-led war in Iraq that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. At the time, the French figured that doing so would push up their stock in the Middle East just as the stock of the Americans came crashing down.

So it is with Iran. The French stance certainly boosts the Israelis, but it is among the Sunni Arab nations that they are reaping material rewards. In May, the French closed a deal with Qatar—that charming emirate built on oil, natural gas, and slave labor—to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets. That same month, French President Francois Hollande was welcomed with open arms at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he assured the assembled oil sheikhs that a deal with Iran had to be based on preventing the mullahs’ from weaponizing their nuclear program.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another aspect of the Middle East’s woes in which France is pursuing a policy of pleasing the Arab nations, only this time at the expense of Israel. Ironically—though this is doubtless the source of much pride at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, where the country’s foreign ministry is located—the French appear to have the support of the Americans as well.

Last year’s vote by French parliamentarians to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state, then described as mainly symbolic, is steadily becoming official French policy. In March, the French government set in motion the drafting of a U.N. resolution to secure a final settling of the Palestinian conflict with Israel. As the Associated Press reported at the time, “While the substance of the French draft may not differ much from past failed efforts to revive Mideast peace talks, France is hoping this time to avoid a U.S. veto at the U.N. because of increasing American frustration with [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Now the French have teamed up with New Zealand to continue the work of drafting the resolution. It’s unlikely that there will be any significant movement on this front before June 30, when the deadline for an agreement with the Iranians expires, but it is entirely possible that the resolution will have been submitted by September, when world leaders descend upon New York City for the U.N.’s annual General Assembly.

According to reports in the French press, the resolution uses Israel’s pre-1967 borders as its point of departure. Two states would be secured on either side of the 1949 armistice line (Green Line), with land swaps implemented to compensate the Palestinians for any West Bank territory incorporated into Israel by such an agreement. The resolution would require the sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of both states. A “just” solution of the Palestinian refugee question—widely believed to focus on financial compensation—is also on the table.

Here’s the kicker, though: If that resolution hasn’t led to the creation of an independent Palestinian state within 18 months of its passage, France—one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—will go ahead and recognize one anyway. Either way, this poses a serious threat to Israel’s sovereignty, because unlike U.N. General Assembly resolutions, those passed by the Security Council carry legal weight.

Israel does have allies that are likely to oppose the resolution, such as the Canadians, about whom Netanyahu recently said that the Jewish state “has no better friend.” Some of the European states, anxious to avoid a situation in which they are eclipsed by the French on foreign policy, might also raise objections. But Canada isn’t on the Security Council, and the only other Europeans who are there permanently are the British. In the final analysis, then, the French bid can only be thwarted by the U.S.

Ben Cohen

Obama, though, has been hinting strongly that the U.S. would vote in favor of the resolution, thus breaking a long tradition of vetoing measures that would harm Israel’s security. As usual, Obama rationalized this position by playing up his personal animus towards Netanyahu. In a recent interview with Israeli television, the president described Netanyahu as “predisposed” to thinking that “peace is naive.” (This led one Democratic strategist to remark that such an attitude has been proven time and again to help, rather than hinder, Netanyahu’s appeal to the Israeli public.)

Hence, by the end of the year, we could be facing the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon and a solution to the Palestinian issue that would be imposed upon Israel, rather than arising from the consent that is essential for successful negotiations. In many ways, the French will be to blame for this. But the real responsibility will lie with the Obama administration, which continues to insist that it has Israel’s back while undermining it at every turn.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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Posted on June 4, 2015 and filed under Analysis, World, U.S., Israel, Opinion.