Is France’s Sarkozy ‘leading from behind’ on Middle East peace?

Laura Rozen

After two and a half years watching the Obama administration's lurching, failed efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, France's Nicolas Sarkozy is signaling that it's time for Washington to give other players a chance to take a larger role in the traditionally U.S.-led peace process.

That French sentiment--expressed previously if discreetly by French foreign minister Alain Juppe--became more obvious this week, after President Obama vowed to block Palestinian efforts to seek increased international recognition at the UN. In his speech to the UN Wednesday, Obama also retreated from his earlier calls on Israel to halt Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Sarkozy, by contrast, told world leaders at the UN Wednesday that France supported a compromise:

"Each of us knows that Palestine cannot immediately obtain full and complete recognition of the status of United Nations member state," Sarkozy said in his speech to the UN General Assembly Wednesday, the New York Times reported. "But who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?"

"Why not envisage offering Palestine the status of United Nations observer state?" Sarkozy continued. "This would be an important step forward. Most important, it would mean emerging from a state of immobility that favors only the extremists."

Sarkozy's push for a middle way--and a greater voice in the traditionally U.S.-dominated peace process--comes as Obama is increasingly asserting a more public defense of Israeli positions and security concerns in its volatile region. The shift seems calculated in part to shore up Obama's support for his 2012 presidential election campaign. In reality, Obama's administration has given more in U.S. military assistance to Israel than any previous administration.

The French and European populations more broadly support the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. At the same time, the French government has tended to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing pro-settler coalition as acting to impede productive negotiations with the Palestinians, European diplomats have said. Obama administration officials have made it clear at many points that they are frustrated with the intransigence of both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

But Obama, in his New York events this week, stressed his ire at the Palestinian UN bid, insisting negotiations were the only route to achieve their goal. (Palestinian protesters burned effigies of Obama in the West Bank on Thursday, McClatchy's Sheera Frenkel reported.)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to deliver a letter to the UN Security Council on Friday seeking enhanced international status. Obama told Abbas in a meeting Wednesday night that he will veto any such resolution. But Palestinian officials have said this week that Abbas' action will not prompt an immediate vote (or US veto). Instead, they suggest that the UN will establish committees to study the issue for weeks and months, thus giving more time for efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy is calling for the Palestinians to consider going instead to the UN General Assembly to seek enhanced "observer" status.  (The position--less than full-fledged statehood--is one held by the Vatican.) Sarkozy is also pushing for the Palestinians and Israelis to agree to resume negotiations within a month, and to come up with agreement on borders and security within six months.