Kouchner: Israel, Hamas must reach deal

French FM to 'Post': Israel has to "take the risk" of group exploiting any lull to rearm.

kouchner 224.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
kouchner 224.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that Israel must urgently reach an agreement with Hamas - directly or through a third party - for an overall cease-fire including a halt to the cycle of Kassam attacks and Israeli responses. Kouchner said he knew Israel was concerned that Hamas would use any such lull to build up and improve its weaponry. But Israel had "to take a chance..., to take a risk," he said. Kouchner also said there was no great hurry to thwart Iran's nuclear drive, but that the way to halt it was via the "French strategy" of sanctions on the one hand, and dialogue with Teheran on the other. The people of Gaza were "living with tremendous suffering," said the minister. Thus the international community had to press "to reopen the gates into Gaza," with the necessary controls. As for Israel, he said, "We need negotiation. The word is awful. I don't want to use the word negotiation. But [we need] some sort of agreement: Hamas must stop firing, targeting Israel with Kassams, and [the] Israeli people must stop 'answering' [retaliating]." Kouchner, 68, is the son of a Protestant mother and a Jewish father whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz. He was completing a visit in which he called for the establishment of a Palestinian state "as quickly as possible" as a vital Palestinian and Israeli interest, and an end to "the blockade on Gaza." Just weeks ago, in Washington, Kouchner declared that it was "not the moment" for the West to be talking to Hamas. Asked Sunday whether he was suggesting Israel should now talk to Gaza's Islamist government, he said: "It has been done already. They [the Israelis] are talking. They are not talking directly, apparently, but through Egypt, on [the issue of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl.] Gilad Schalit. You have to free Gilad Schalit... I don't ask them to talk directly to Hamas. It's up to them." But he stressed that a cease-fire was an urgent imperative to persuade Palestinians that daily life could change for the better. He knew of Israel's fears that Hamas would exploit any cease-fire. "It's always the case," he said. But "we have to take a chance..., to take a risk." Israel should use its allies and its friends, the French included, to reach a cease-fire, he said. French officials added that Kouchner had secured Defense Minister Ehud Barak's agreement for a truck carrying 40 tons of cement to enter Gaza daily, as of Monday, to enable progress on the sewage treatment project in the Strip. Regarding the West Bank, Kouchner called on Israel to remove some of the checkpoints restricting Palestinian travel, to give ordinary people "some freedom of movement." He said the diplomatic efforts between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei, were proceeding to the satisfaction of both sides, although they were not sufficiently intense. But he said the Annapolis process was not being handled "in the proper way," because not enough was being done to build popular support. The Palestinian people were not satisfied, "because there is no change, no change at all, in the day-to-day life of the Palestinians." Turning to Iran, Kouchner cited December's American National Intelligence Estimate on Teheran's purportedly halted efforts to build a nuclear weapon as proof that "for the time being, we are not in a hurry." He said the prospect of a nuclear Iran was an existential concern not just for Israel, but also "for the rest of the world." It needed to be addressed, he said, through a combination of talking to the Iranians and imposing new sanctions agreed upon by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. A sanctions agreement was now being reached, he said. "So on one side sanctions, and on the other side dialogue - this is the French strategy." During a Sunday morning meeting at Beit Hanassi, Kouchner told President Shimon Peres there had been virtually no substantive progress in the peace process since the Annapolis summit and the meeting of the donor states in Paris. In Kouchner's view, this was a dangerous situation. It was imperative to get economic projects under way immediately, he said. Later, after talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the French foreign minister backtracked on his earlier pessimism regarding the peace talks, saying that at the end of his trip, he felt progress was being made in the negotiations, but that parallel efforts must be made to improve the situation on the ground via joint projects. Livni stressed the paramount importance of addressing Israeli security concerns. "The world that backs the call for two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security must understand that as far as Israel is concerned, any agreement must provide real solutions to Israel's security needs," she said. Important differences emerged in the talks. Paris would like to see Israel ease the sanctions on Gaza and wants the border crossings reopened. The response of Israeli leaders in Sunday's talks was a polite "No" - the sanctions will remain as long as the rocket attacks continue. At the same time, Israel made clear to Kouchner that it would not allow a humanitarian crisis to develop in Gaza. And Israeli leaders again stressed the importance of maintaining the international diplomatic boycott on Hamas as long as the Islamist group continued to reject the three conditions laid down by the Quartet: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and endorsement of existing agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians. Mark Weiss and Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.