Globalist: A French call on Arafat fuels a diplomatic furor

Posted in Europe | 17-Jul-04 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier (R) shakes hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.
TEL AVIV Why did Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, choose to go to Ramallah for an overnight stay last month with Yasser Arafat, the encircled and largely isolated Palestinian leader?

The disruptive effects of the visit included enraging the Israeli government; causing the cancellation this month of a planned meeting of senior American and European envoys with Israeli Foreign Ministry officials; irritating the United States at a time when France and America have been trying to do a little better by each other; and providing a flagrant example of the discord in Western approaches to the Middle East.

To one senior Western official in Israel, this was "French unilateralism" at its worst. As he offered this view, he was scrambling to contact David Satterfield, the American envoy to the group known as the Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - to tell him that the Quartet's scheduled appointment last week at the Israeli Foreign Ministry had been abruptly called off.

"Barnier blew us out of the water," the official said. "Why do the French insist on giving Arafat new illusions?" A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said Barnier's meeting conformed with official EU policy of an evenhanded approach to the conflict, reflected Arafat's position as the elected leader of the Palestinian people and clarified the French conviction that Arafat remained "an inescapable personality" in the quest for peace.

"Arafat alone can persuade the Palestinian people of the need for the sacrifices necessary to achieve a settlement," said the spokesman, who requested anonymity. He denied that Barnier's visit prompted Israel's cancellation of the planned Quartet meeting on July 6, attributing the move to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's dislike of European involvement in the peace quest.

As for Barnier, who took office earlier this year, he said after the meeting with Arafat that the Israeli encirclement of the Palestinian leader in his Ramallah compound should end. In an interview with RTL television, he also declared that there could be no peace agreement "without Arafat and, even less, against Arafat."

His statements make clear that there is no agreement, inside the Quartet or outside it, as to how to proceed in the Middle East. The American and Israeli positions are unequivocal: Peace with Arafat in his current leadership role is impossible.

Arafat, 74, has turned a blind or benign eye to suicide bombings too often, failed to deliver on promised reform too often, deceived and cheated too often. He has never in earnest - even after the Oslo accords - embarked on the task of preparing Palestinian youth for the fact of Israel's existence. American and Israeli officials argue that to expect statesmanship from him now, as the French appear ready to do, is to wallow in illusion.

Barnier has insisted that he merely followed EU policy. But Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, chose not to see Arafat on a visit to Israel last February. The Quartet, in general, has shunned Arafat.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN envoy to the Middle East and once a regular visitor to the Palestinian leader, has not seen him in almost a year. Most people who know Arafat have long since come to the conclusion that he will say, "Yes, Excellency, yes, Excellency" to any visitor and any request and any idea - before proceeding to do nothing or the opposite.

The conviction behind isolating him has been that only ostracism will focus Arafat's mind on the need to rein in his freewheeling security services, persuade him to empower Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and other ministers, and convince him that the wisest course now is acceptance of a symbolic leadership role - "the portrait on the wall," as one official put it - and a comfortable retirement assured by his vast fortune.

International exasperation with Arafat was summed up this week at the United Nations by Roed-Larsen, once the target of criticism from Israel for being too close to the Palestinians. He said the Palestinian Authority was in "paralysis," with "steadily emerging chaos" engulfing Palestinian areas as Arafat failed to respond to Egyptian suggestions for the reorganization of a dozen competing security services.

Of course, if Arafat is front and center again, Sharon must take some of the credit. He did nothing to help Qurei's predecessor as prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who might have provided a real interlocutor for peace negotiations. His encirclement of Arafat reinforces the image the Palestinian leader most loves for himself and his people: that of victim. The view that Sharon wants Arafat there so that he can proceed unilaterally is persuasive.

Where does this leave efforts to advance the "road map" to peace and Palestinian statehood set out by the United States and embraced by the Quartet? The jaundiced response among Western diplomats today is: waiting for Arafat to die.

A brighter response, short of that, is waiting for the promised Israeli withdrawal from Gaza next year in the hope that this will put pressure on the Palestinians to organize themselves with Egyptian help. A demonstration in Gaza of Palestinian competence and self-governance, with security, could spur wider reform in the West Bank. But this outcome appears uncertain. Arafat's blocking power remains enormous.

Officers in Israeli military intelligence like to show a video of Arafat addressing Palestinian boy scouts this year. He beams as he leads rhythmic chants promising that a "million martyrs" are headed for Jerusalem and that Palestine will be redeemed "with our blood." A visitor to the Palestinian leader a year ago reports that Arafat expressed satisfaction at his position because each lost Israeli life was a problem to Sharon while even 30,000 Palestinian martyrs were no problem to him.

Is this really the man from whom Barnier expects statesmanship? Or do the Arafat romanticists of the Quai d'Orsay just like to tweak America when they can while delivering the growing Muslim vote in France to President Jacques Chirac? "We believe in Arafat," said the Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We do not see who else can deliver." Roger Cohen can be reached at

Monday: Elisabeth Bumiller writes on George W. Bush and the politics of presidential vacations.