Sarkozy: Now's the time to turn a new page

Peres asks French president to tell Assad that the best way to achieve peace is through direct talks.

sarkozy wife bg 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
sarkozy wife bg 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
The only way to assure Israel's security is through the creation of a free, independent democratic Palestinian state, French President Nicolas Sarkorzy told President Shimon Peres on Sunday evening. Expounding on his remarks following his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, where he said that he was in Israel because he was convinced that Israel's security is contingent on having a Palestinian state alongside it, Sarkozy said at a meeting with Peres at Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem that the time was ripe to take risks for peace. To do so in the future, he opined, would be more difficult. There has been too much suffering and killing in the region, Sarkozy declared. "There is no sense in counting more dead," he said. "Now is the time to turn a new page." Insisting that he had not come to teach Israelis a lesson in morality, Sarkozy said that the only people who could make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians were the two parties themselves, saying, "No one can do it without you, and it's a mistake to think that anyone else can do it for you." In stating the case for an independent Palestinian state, Sarkozy, who is of Jewish descent, made the point that if anyone could understand Palestinian yearning for statehood it was the Jews who suffered so much and so long to realize that dream for themselves. Yet while advocating the establishment of a Palestinian state, Sarkozy took great pains to assure Peres that he personally was, is and will be Israel's friend and that France would stand by Israel politically, economically and even militarily if necessary. "The Iranian crisis is the central crisis of the world," he said, implying that while Israel may be the first potential target, no other country would be safe, and in this respect he pledged that France would always be at Israel's side to defend her existence. As far as a Palestinian state is concerned, Sarkozy said that he understood the risks involved and the fear of terrorism, and again reiterated his abiding friendship. While he would always stand alongside Israel, he said, he felt it imperative to be critical of some of Israel's decisions, which he considered to be flawed. In particular he cited expansion of settlements and construction of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. Peres, referring to the capture of Gilad Schalit by Hamas and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev by Hizbullah, said that what was needed was a Middle East free of abductions. Emphasizing the sensitivity of the issue to Israel, Peres said that although only three soldiers had been abducted, the kidnappings had the whole nation standing on its hind legs. He said that Israel was pleased that France enjoyed good relations with the Arab states because this was something that Israel wanted to have for itself as well. He added that Israel was also in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state and was opposed to settlement expansion. Peres noted that even though Israel had evacuated all Jewish settlements from Gaza, Hamas continues to fire rockets at Israel daily. Israel paid a heavy price for peace with Egypt and Jordan and would be willing to do so with Syria as well, said Peres, as he asked Sarkozy to convey a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad that the best way to achieve peace was through direct negotiations. Peres suggested that Assad follow the example of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and come to Jerusalem to deal directly with the leadership of Israel. Assad should understand that with a change of mentality, he could accomplish a great deal, said Peres. "There will be no peace in the Middle East if there is no peace with Syria." "I have always been and will always be a friend of Israel," Sarkozy said at a red-carpet welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. He quickly turned his attention to the staggering peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. "I believe that the path to peace lies there before us, that the path to peace is not blocked. I have come to bring my support and that of France and the European Union, your partners in the negotiations," he said. "An agreement is possible, tomorrow, and that agreement would allow the two peoples to live side-by-side in peace and security." Sarkozy then traveled to Jerusalem for the welcoming ceremony at Beit Hanassi followed by dinner with Olmert. At the ceremony, Sarkozy was serenaded by a French-speaking Israeli high school choir. Sarkozy was accompanied by his wife, the model-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The first lady's schedule has been tightly guarded to prevent aggressive paparazzi coverage. Bruni-Sarkozy, wearing a brown summer dress, tapped her feet to the tune of the popular Israeli song "Hallelujah." Sarkozy's speech before the Knesset on Monday will be the first by a French president since Francois Mitterrand addressed the plenum in 1982. Sarkozy, accompanied by six cabinet ministers, will also visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and watch an exhibition of an environmentally friendly electric car being developed by Renault-Nissan and an Israeli-American entrepreneur. Sarkozy will also make a brief visit to Bethlehem, where he will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel's Ambassador to France Daniel Shek said Sunday that Sarkozy's visit should be viewed on three different planes. The first was on the bilateral plane, and the realization that in recent months a degree of "intimacy" and "confidence" has developed in Israeli-French ties that has not been seen in years. This intimacy was evident during Peres's visit to France earlier this year, the intensive Israeli participation in the Paris book fair a few months ago, Sarkozy's participation in an event on Yom Ha'atzmaut, and now this visit. On a regional plane, Shek said the Middle East had always been a central pillar of French diplomacy, and that France had always shown interest in the region and expected a role. However, he said that the French position now was not to demand a role in the negotiations, which it saw as a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian issue, but rather to create a supportive international environment that would encourage the sides to take "courageous" steps. The third level, Shek said, was the European one. He noted that France would take over the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, and that it was likely to be a presidency that - as a function of France's position inside Europe - would be active in many spheres, including the Middle East. Shek said Sarkozy did not see ties with Israel as a "zero-sum game" that meant that France must turn its back on its interests in the Arab world. Rather, he said Sarkozy had made clear that he felt France could have balanced ties with both sides, and had made that position clear in recent visits to Tunisia and Algeria. Another diplomatic source said Sarkozy had proven himself a friend of Israel, even before he became president last year. The official said he got this from his Jewish grandfather on his mother's side, as well as from his pro-US orientation. According to this source, since Sarkozy came into office there has been a "green light" in France to tighten the strategic relationship with Israel, and that an annual strategic dialogue between France and Israel had been initiated, something Israel had with only two other countries: the US and Britain. The source said that as a result of Sarkozy's friendly disposition, the French press and French public opinion in general had begun becoming a bit more favorable to Israel in recent months. The source pointed to a plethora of articles on Israel, many of them with a positive tone, in the French press during last month's Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations. At the same time, the source said that Sarkozy's friendliness for Israel did carry some political cost inside France, but more significantly has angered many in the Arab world who had always taken for granted that France would be squarely in their corner when it came to the Israeli-Arab conflict. AP contributed to this report.