Thursday, July 28, 2005

Israel's Friend France
An Interview With Jacques Chirac

Recent polls have shown that Jacques Chirac has very little support among his own people in France. The French economy is not doing well. The EU Constitution was voted down. His friend's Arafat, Hafez Assad, and Rafik al-Hariri have all died. To top it all off, the Middle Eastern leaders of today tend to look more to Washington, then to France for guidance and support in getting their initiatives through on the world stage.

All this bespeaks a leader whose influence is on a precipitous decline. But, Chirac is not a man to give up easily. Forty years in politics have taught him that there is always a way to reassert one's leadership. Thus, in one of the stranger confluences of circumstance in modern political history we find that Ariel Sharon and Jacques Chirac believe that, at this juncture, they need each other. The Israeli liberal daily, Haaretz, analyzes:

Chirac is in desperate need of some sort of achievement in the international arena. He wants to show a new peak in bilateral relations with Israel, which have been warming during the past two years. At the same time he wants to express firm support for the disengagement and the road map's comprehensive peace plan.

For his part, Sharon wants to show that he is not a prisoner in the hands of the Jewish settlers in the territories and that the disengagement is not interfering with his agenda. On the contrary. It burnishes his reputation in the world, and there is nothing like a seal of approval from a traditionally critical country like France to prove this. Sharon will also get points from the Jewish community, which is desperate for a warming of relations between the two countries.

Finally, the prime minister will also try to take advantage of the rare moment in order to formulate understandings on the burning Middle East issues - Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah and the question of Iranian nuclear capacity.

Chirac is so keen to improve relations with Israel, that he sat for a lengthy interview with Haaretz, for which his handlers said he "worked very to prepare." Here is an excerpt:

Haaretz: Following the terror attacks in London, will Europe as a whole and France in particular have a better understanding of Israel's struggle with Palestinian terror? Will you, for example, evince more understanding of the policy of targeted assassinations in the territories?

Chirac: "The Europeans did not wait for the attacks in London in order to enlist firmly and uncompromisingly against terror. Everyday we expand, together and coherently, and in coordination with the other large countries of the world, our abilities to fight terror. We understand [your situation] well, and we have always condemned the acts of terror of which Israelis are the victims. Every act of terror is despicable and it must be deplored."

Haaretz: Is France's position on terror closer today to that of Israel, the United States or Britain?

"Nothing can justify terror. It uses the pretext of great causes as an excuse for the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people. It is one of the faces of modern barbarism. No country is safe from it. France itself has been the victim of terror and has never underestimated the threat. On the contrary, it is spearheading the struggle against this plague. It identifies with Britain and with the other countries that have been hit, among them, alas, Israel.

"It is incumbent upon us to expand international coordination of the intelligence services, the police and the judicial systems. We are also insisting that the fight against terror be conducted while preserving the principles of the rule of law, democracy and human dignity. Therefore we have insisted that the international conventions define terror and determine a framework for international action against it.

That all sounds very resolute. But, Chirac wouldn't be Chirac if he didn't leave some room for equivocation:

"At the same time, we must deal with all the factors that nourish the hatred and the frustrations: the unresolved conflicts, religious intolerance, the rejection of the other and economic instability. We must prevent the terrorists from exploiting this fertile ground that serves them as a pretext and enables them to prosper."

The question is, how is Israel supposed to deal with the unresolved conflict that the two governing political parties of the Palestinian territories do not want Israel to exist at all?

Chirac notes that Abu Mazen has "promised to put an end to the violence," but he doesn't note that the "promise" has been followed up with no concrete effort.

Haaretz asks Chirac about the role of Hamas:

Haaretz: Could Hamas, in certain circumstances, become an interlocutor?

Chirac: "Hamas is a terrorist organization that cannot be an interlocutor of the international community as long as it does not renounce violence and does not recognize Israel's right to exist. This is the unambiguous position of the EU and it will not change."

Chirac then goes on to make a powerful argument for French/Israeli friendship; an argument the whole world needs to take heed of, whenever the concept of a "One-State Solution" to the Middle East Conflict is floated:

Haaretz: The assessment in Israel is that your invitation to Sharon symbolizes a substantial improvement in the relations between the two countries after years of tension. However, you are no doubt also aware of the despised image of France and the French in Israel. What, in your opinion, should be done to change this image, and what do you intend to do in order to improve France's image in the world, which has been evincing hostility toward it of late?

Chirac: "France is Israel's friend. It is so for historical reasons, its long and ancient friendship for the Jewish people, its admiration for this people's contribution to world civilization and also the very strong feeling that Israel's existence and legitimacy are indispensable in a world that has known the horror of the Holocaust.

I honestly don't know what to make of this new turn of events, nor of this interview. Political winds do sometimes seem to blow leaders, typically at odds with each other, into cooperative circumstances. Certainly, the Soviet Union and the United States cooperated in the destruction of Nazi Germany. However, in my opinion, while Chirac does seem to understand why Israel must continue to exist, he doesn't seem to understand the threat to it's existence.

For one thing, there is the purposeful ignoring of the fact that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is neglecting to live up to his side of the Road Map. And, later in the interview, Chirac is asked about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons:

Haaretz: If Iran decides to ignore the international demands, will you support the imposition of sanctions - and should these not prove effective - military action?

Chirac: "I cannot tell you what the results of our activity will be. I hope that it will succeed and eliminate the danger of proliferation. If this does not prove to be the case, it will of course be necessary to transfer the handling [of the Iranian problem] to the UN Security Council."

Haaretz: And then, is it possible that you would also support military action?

Chirac: "Please [he sighs] - we are not in any way at that stage. Military attacks are not a solution, whatever the problem. There are civilized means of solving problems and we hope that these will give rise to a positive solution. Otherwise, I stress, it will be necessary to turn to the Security Council."

You see, this is just more of the same thing we saw in the lead up to the Iraq War. Chirac's statement that "military attacks are not a solution, whatever the problem," flies in the face of reality, and of France's own foreign policy. When France is unhappy with the goings-on in the Ivory Coast, they do not hesitate to send in troops and shoot up the place. What Chirac is really saying here is that to attack Iran would be very dangerous. But, of course, to not attack Iran, and take out their nuclear capabilities, would be even more dangerous.

It is frightening that world leaders hold to such platitudes, and even seem convinced of their truth as they utter them. This world is not perfect. Sometimes military attacks are the answer. The Nazis could never have been vanquished without military attacks. And now, we are up against a similar fascist menace. Do we want Iran to have nuclear weapons, or not? If they show no signs of making real concessions in negotiation, then the answer is necessarily military attacks.

I think this interview is important because it shows that Chirac is wedged into a situation where he finds himself having to cooperate with Israel and the United States in the War on Terror. This could mean that he will be of help. But, at the same time, it is as clear as ever, that if Chirac is to be of help, he will have to be brought along kicking and screaming.