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Sarkozy as Gaza Broker

Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009

I'm not really sure what motivates the derision in David Kenner's FP Passport write-up of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's diplomatic activism, currently on display in the Israel-Hamas conflict:

The French president has tasked himself with the modest goal ofnegotiating an immediate ceasefire to the carnage in Gaza. Even if hefails to score a diplomatic victory, his whirlwind tour will no doubtrepresent a triumph of travel booking. . . .

The French taxpayers are getting precious few diplomatic victories fortheir money, but many headlines. And that seems to suit them just fine.Sarkozy's trips have raised France's international profile, much to thepleasure of many French voters. Whether the people of Gaza will reapany of the benefits of Sarkozy's diplomacy, however, remains to be seen.

That kind of takeaway certainly becomes possible if preceded by Sarkozy's "long list of diplomatic initiatives":

. . . [H]e went to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, and attempted to enlist the Syrian president in joining his Union of the Mediterranean. He traveled to Moscow and Tblisi during the Russian invasion of Georgia, attempting to arrange a ceasefire.

Of course, another way to characterize those two particular "initiatives" would be as accomplishments, since Sarkozy succeeded in both. I imagine the people of Gaza would be happy to reap the same benefits as the people of Georgia did from the ceasefire Sarkozy negotiated in August. And given Syria's influence with Hamas, Sarkozy's outreach to Syrian President Bashar Assad over the past six months is beginning to look prescient.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate as much as anyone Sarkozy's comedic value. His gaffes, of which there have admittedly been no shortage, are always notable, and as I've acknowledged in my ongoing exchanges on the subject with Art Goldhammer, there are times where Sarkozy's method does put "l'effet d'annonce" -- which would roughly translate as hype -- over substance.

But the derision seems misplaced here, especially in light of the two "initiatives" Kenner brushes aside. For all the obstacles before the Union for the Mediterranean, it's still a remarkable achievement to constitute a regional organization that includes Israel alongside its Arab neighbors. And for all the shortcomings of the Russia-Georgia ceasefire, it's difficult to imagine, given the facts on the ground when it was negotiated, how anyone else might have gotten better results, or how continued fighting would have been preferable.

Both of those accomplishments would seem to lend weight to Sarkozy's belief that he might move the process of mediation in Gaza forward, and validate his decision to fill the vacuum created by the limitations of the EU's diplomatic efforts under the initially shaky presidency of the Czech Republic.

As Frida Ghitis pointed out in her WPR column last week, the role of mediator is a perilous one, and if someone's got to be the first to take a high-profile crack at it, Sarkozy seems like a good choice. This Guardian article gives a good idea of the ceasefire terms that are taking shape, and as it makes clear, France and Sarkozy are an important part of the multilateral equation that could expedite Israel's exit strategy and limit the civilian costs of the conflict. If "les amis Britanniques" can give Sarko his due, I think the Sarko-skeptics across the pond ought to be able to as well.