Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sarkozy tells half the story

French President Nicolas Sarkozy found himself in Israel this week, where he sought to bolster is credentials with Jerusalem. While his call for the creation of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, is laudable, as was his criticism of the illegal Israeli settlements, his comments are certainly no longer original, as many world leaders have voiced similar views. In fact, it is not even risqué to say these things anymore, as such headline-grabbing catchphrases have reached the point of abstraction and never include the more important detail of making the call a reality. In other words, absent a commitment to a date, calls for the creation of a Palestinian state are just empty rhetoric and only legitimize the Process — e.g. “peace talks — which is soaked in the blood of two peoples and has led nowhere, except deeper into reciprocal violence.

Were Sarkozy’s failings limited to that, he could be forgiven for his lack of imagination or risk-taking. Sadly, however, other comments made during his visit belie his biases. For one, while he claims to support the creation of a Palestinian state, he could not refrain from stating that France is a “staunch supporter” of Israel (where are the staunch supporters of Palestine?) and that Palestinians themselves must fight terrorism, as if terrorism were only committed by one side in the conflict. Again, this shows Sarkozy’s — and many others’ — failure, or refusal, to understand that terrorism is not solely the remit of sub-state groups but that professional armies, too, can engage in the method, as the Israel Defense Force certainly has, what with its indiscriminate attacks on civilian neighborhoods, collective punishment, use of banned weapons, and assassinations. A more balanced comment would have stated that both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, must be committed to combating terrorism used in their respective names. But, as always, the word terrorism is only tagged to Muslims, while professional armies are merely acting in self-defense, defending democracy and so on.

Then Sarkozy met with the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier (who has French nationality) who was abducted by Gaza militants two years ago. “Gilad,” Sarkozy said (note the first-name basis), “must be released,” adding that “one does not build peace by holding hostages.” True though this comment may be, Sarkozy simply cannot not be aware of the hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese abducted by Israeli security forces, many of whom have been held incommunicado, with no means to defend themselves in the court of law, for years in Israeli jails (which played a major, if rarely discussed, role in Hezbollah’s abduction of Israeli soldiers in July 2006, prompting Israel’s massive attack on Lebanon). By failing to mention this, Sarkozy was giving the impression that Palestinians alone engage in abductions and are therefore solely responsible for undermining peace. Here again, a more even-handed — and certainly more helpful — comment would have been to clearly state that both sides in the conflict have engaged in such activities and to call such conduct illegal.

But fairness was not on Sarkozy’s mind during his Jerusalem visit — political points were, as he is only the second French president to have visited the country in 12 years. Still, as he continues his tour of the region and makes his obligatory visit to the West Bank, Palestinian leaders will be all politeness, silent in their knowledge that the man in the spotlight is not even a true friend.

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