It is important to read the visit of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to Israel in the context of a fundamental change in French geopolitics since he took office.
Sarkozy’s pro-Israeli views were evident in his Knesset speech when he highly praised the country in ways perhaps never said before by an European leader.
But he was also remarkably frank about the need for Israel to withdraw its settlers and allow for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem becoming the capital of two states.
The French president’s Israel visit must be seen as part of an overhaul of France’s geo-political strategy: a fundamental revamp of the conservative policies of Jacque Chirac, his predecessor.
Sarkozy’s motivation, the search for legacy and revival of old imperial ambitions, are different from the conservative and seasoned Chirac for whom personal relationships where an essential component of policy-making.
The ambitious French president is planning to change the strategic posture of France in Africa (including cutting bases and troop deployment), reconfigure its strategy within Europe and Nato to fit the common requirements of both, as well as restructuring the French army (on the cheap).
In the meantime, he will seek to redefine French influence in the Mediterranean region through the prism of the new French-European relationship within the Mediterranean Union.
Sarkozy’s compliments and unconditional support for Israel together with his criticism of its settlements in the West Bank are part and parcel of this rethink.
His support for Syrian-Israeli talks, a departure from Chirac’s personal obsession with the Lebanese Hariri family, should also be seen within this context and that of US President George Bush’s radical speech in the Knesset and his failure to muster strategic or diplomatic success in the region.
Sarkozy is more than keen to take advantage of the window of opportunity offered by American failures in the region; perhaps, he has gained Washington’s green light to interfere on its behalf to fill the void.
Avoiding Blair’s mistakes
Sarkozy seems to avoid Blair’s mistakes by sounding less of a poodle and more of a bulldog as he underlines an independent French vision that combines the historic French position on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict while at the same time building on the US need for a supportive European role.
In light of the strategic vacuum in Europe – after the Irish vote against the Lisbon Agenda – and the absence of active geopolitical players within the continent, Sarkozy has already expressed a sincere desire to ameliorate Paris’s relationship with Washington through and outside of Nato without undermining French autonomy in the Mediterranean region.
This is bound to be made clearer in July when Sarkozy meets with the region’s leaders in Paris.