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The Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies - La presidenza di Sarkozy 23/06/2008
Executive Summary: On the eve of Nicholas Sarkozy's first state visit to Israel and one year into his presidency, it can be asked: Does Sarkozy's Presidency mark a new era in Franco-Israeli relations? The analysis below suggests that, despite a tightening of French-Israel bilateral and strategic relations under Sarkozy and an improvement in both ambiance and tone, substantial political disagreements remain between the two countries. This is especially true in four areas: Israeli-Palestinian issues, the crisis in Lebanon, Sarkozy's "Arab policy" and Iran's nuclear drive.

Introduction

Sarkozy's election in May 2007 sparked expectations in Israel of a new era in Franco-Israeli relations. These expectations were related to Sarkozy's friendly declarations towards Israel, including his sensitivity to Israel's security challenges and his determination to fight terror. The sight of Israeli flags fluttering along the Champs Elysee in May 2008 during the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres, as well as the choice of Israel as the guest of honor in the international book exhibition, illustrated the friendly attitudes of France's new president.  

Nonetheless, one year after Sarkozy's accession, substantial differences of opinion, which have characterized French-Israeli relations in the past, still persist, despite the tightening of bilateral and strategic relations. Sarkozy's scheduled visit to Israel provides an appropriate occasion for a re-evaluation of Franco-Israeli relations.  Four issues serve as indicators in examining the question of whether Sarkozy's presidency represents a new era.  

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

It appears that there has been no change in France's position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus, on many occasions, including Shimon Peres' highly covered visit to France in March 2008, Sarkozy has declared France's hopes for the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, by the end of 2008. The French Foreign Ministry, headed by Bernard Kouchner, continues its condemnation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and portrays them as an obstacle to the peace process, alongside that of Palestinian terrorism. France fiercely demands the removal of checkpoints intended to protect Israeli citizens from acts of Palestinian terror.  Additionally, France blames Israel for the economic damage incurred by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and for the PA's failure to establish effective governance.

Indeed, France does condemn the firing of Qassam rockets and mortar rounds from Gaza on civilians in Israel and demands Hamas to stop terror activities and recognize the state of Israel.  However, in an attempt to present a balanced position, it immorally equates acts of terror with acts of defense. France demands Israel's restraint and frequently denounces Israel's military operations that are meant to protect its citizens from the daily barrage of rocket and mortar rounds launched from Gaza.  Additionally, France frequently criticizes Israel for the severe humanitarian situation in Gaza, although this is the result of Hamas' terrorist attacks on Israel and on the border crossings between Israel and Gaza.

Additionally, France disagrees with Israel regarding the interpretation of UN Resolution 242, which calls for the return of territories seized in 1967.  Regarding the Arab refugees' right of return, an issue of almost overwhelming consensus in Israel, Sarkozy's France has not changed its official position.

On 22 October 2007, following a meeting with Sarkozy in Paris, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert declared that both leaders agreed that the refugee problem would be solved by their settlement in the future Palestinian State. That day, Israeli press headlines declared that France's position regarding the Arab refugees had undergone a transformation. In contrast, during the French Foreign Ministry's daily press conference, the Foreign Ministry spokesman clarified that there was no change in France's position regarding the question of the Palestinian refugees. He emphasized France's adherence to the relevant UN resolution in the matter.  

It should be noted that French official policy still backs UN Resolution 194, which refers to the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel.  It is hard to imagine that a French Foreign Ministry spokesman would declare a position that was not in accordance with the President of France, who has the constitutional authority over matters of foreign policy and security.

The Crisis in Lebanon

Sarkozy’s policy on Lebanon, much like his predecessor's, emphasizes France's historical and emotional ties to the country. As in the past, France often declares its uncompromising support for Lebanon’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as well as its resolve to bring about the dismantling of the militias in Lebanon according to UN Resolutions 1559 and 1701. Sarkozy's France stands by its refusal to declare Hizballah a terrorist organization, claiming it constitutes an integral part of Lebanese political life.

Following the political crisis in Lebanon, which started at the end of 2006 with the resignation of Hizballah's ministers from the government, France offered its services as a mediator between the rival factions; between the majority, headed by Lebanese PM Fouad Seniora, and the minority, headed by Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah. France intensified its diplomatic involvement in Lebanon in light of the political stalemate created by Lebanese disagreements over the nomination of a new president and Hizballah's demand for changes in the Lebanese constitution, intended to grant it veto power over government decisions. Apart from its concern for Lebanon's internal security and its desire to prevent the eruption of a new civil war in Lebanon, France is undoubtedly anxious for the safety of its 1,600 soldiers in the UNIFIL force.

Despite France's repeated public support for Lebanon's democratic government, France did not condemn Hizballah's use of force in order to impose its political ambitions on Lebanon's government in May 2008.  On the contrary, France declared its satisfaction with the agreed resolution of the crisis, reached at the Doha conference in May 2008, presenting it as a French diplomatic success. Sarkozy's meetings with Hizballah representatives during his recent visit to Beirut on 7 June 2008 might similarly be perceived as endorsement of Hizballah's aggressive military strategy to gain control of Lebanon.

French conduct in Lebanon raises serious questions as to France's capacity to stand by its declared policy and promises regarding Lebanon.  From an Israeli point of view, these developments certainly create risks that could give rise to a third Lebanon war, since Hizballah, much like its Iranian patron, openly declares its desire to destroy the state of Israel.

Sarkozy's "Arab Policy"

As in the past, Sarkozy's relations with the Arab and Muslim world represent a central component of France's foreign policy. Soon after assuming power, Sarkozy initiated intense contacts with Arab and Muslim countries.  In addition, France launched fundraising conferences in favor of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.  A noteworthy development in France's Middle East policy was civilian nuclear cooperation with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, the Gulf countries and Egypt. Faced with criticism, Sarkozy asserted that in principle, Muslim and Arab states have the same right to civilian atomic energy as any other state.

Another way of promoting France's economic and political standing in the Arab world was evident in Sarkozy's initiative to create a Mediterranean Union, intended to link European and non-European countries along the Mediterranean Sea. France is organizing a conference for the inauguration of the Union on 13 July 2008. The preparations are marked by the opposition of Arab countries such as Libya and Algeria to an Israeli presence in the new forum.

Another recent development is the warming of Franco-Syrian relations, which had deteriorated since the assassination in February 2005 of Rafiq Hariri, Chirac's close friend. Sarkozy, who invited Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to the conference, also offered France's assistance in mediation between Israel and Syria and even proposed handing over the disputed area of Sheba farms to UN custody. This abrupt reversal of French attitudes towards Syria might indicate its wish to buy calm in Lebanon and to keep Syria away from meddling in Lebanese affairs. From an Israeli point of view, such an abrupt reversal, as in the case of the Lebanese crisis, sounds warning bells as to France's capacity and willingness to deliver on its promises of support for Israel's security needs.

Iran's Nuclear Project

In contrast to the Lebanese context, which is marked by appeasing attitudes towards Iran's allies, Hizballah and Syria, Sarkozy leads a hard line against Iran's nuclear intentions.  Sarkozy has declared that Iran's nuclear project and aspirations present a major threat to the world's security. Consequently, France advocates further UN sanctions and also conducts intensive efforts to promote unilateral European sanctions. Sarkozy's position against Iran is more hard-line than that of his predecessor and is augmented by tightened cooperation with the US and Israel on this issue. However, Sarkozy explicitly expressed his objection to military action against Iran. Sarkozy did fiercely condemned Iranian president Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic expressions and his call for the annihilation of Israel. It remains an open question whether the discrepancy between French rhetoric and action will not again prevail on the Iranian nuclear issue, as it did in the issue of Lebanon.

Conclusion

Thus far, Sarkozy's presidency, while marked by genuine expressions and gestures of friendship towards Israel, has not changed France's deep-rooted political and economic contacts in the Arab and Muslim world. Furthermore, France has its own Middle East perceptions which do not converge with those of Israel, thus producing substantial divergences. This state of affairs is unlikely to change dramatically in the foreseeable future, especially as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists and Hizballah remains dominant in Lebanon.

Yet, taking into account France's upcoming presidency of the EU (July through December of 2008) and the preoccupation of the US in the approaching presidential elections, Sarkozy's France might occupy a more prominent role as mediator between Israel and its neighbors. Israel might benefit if it consents to greater French diplomatic involvement, conditioning it on France's commitment to adhere, as much as possible, to balanced and unprejudiced political attitudes.

Dr. Tsilla Hershco, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, specializes in Franco-Israeli relations.
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