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Sarkozy expected in Israel despite a stalled peace process
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11:20, June 22, 2008

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With only weeks to go before the launch of his proposed Union for the Mediterranean, French President Nicolas Sarkozy heads to Israel Sunday where he will be received as a "friend" before traveling to the Palestinian territories, despite fears over the Middle East peace process.

For many years now, the French head of state has consistently proclaimed his friendship for Israel loud and clear, something that has won him a great deal of good among the citizens of the Hebrew state, according to observers.

During an earlier visit to Jerusalem in December 2004, the Israeli authorities had gone into much trouble to make him feel welcome by rolling out a red carpet reception while Sarkozy was merely the head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

After the tensions that characterized the traditionally turbulent relations between the two countries during the two terms under Jacques Chirac that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president was welcomed in Jerusalem as the promise of a new era, said one political analyst, insisting: "It does not come as a surprise to anyone."

"President Sarkozy has often described Israel as the miracle of the twentieth century. This is something we will not forget," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying in an interview published in the Thursday edition of the daily Le Figaro.

"Today, our relations with France are far much better than what they were over the past years," said the Israeli prime minister, adding that "there is a high potential for even better relations between our two nations."

Since his arrival at the presidential palace, the proximity of views between the two countries has not wavered, but rather strengthened, so much to the relief of Israel. Shortly after his election, President Sarkozy carefully extended his very first state visit to his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres.

In addition, the French head of state, contrary to his predecessor, has adopted a very firm line in dealing with the disputed Iranian nuclear program, which the West sees as threat to the security of Israel, according to keen observers.

"The existence of Israel is not debatable, its security is not negotiable," the president was quoted as saying in an interview published Friday by two leading Israeli dailies, Yediot Aharonot and Maariv.

President Sarkozy has also taken time to underline his unwavering support for "the creation of a democratic, modern and viable Palestinian state" and called on Israeli authorities to "stop creating more colonies in disputed territories" such as East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for a future capital.

"This price is the price that we have to pay for peace," said the president in the interview, adding that "a Palestinian state was in the best interest of Israel."

This, according to political analysts, is the message that the head of state is expected to reiterate during his three-day visit, in which he is set to hold discussions with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres.

This message will also be the main topic when the French head of state takes to the podium to address the Israeli parliament, Knesset, on Monday and also during discussions with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday in Bethlehem, West Bank.

But in a difficult context marked by a stalled peace process since its relaunch in Annapolis, United States, few expect Sarkozy to come up with the magical formula to fix what is ailing negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

"Olmert as Abbas are in a delicate situation with regard to their two camps, a situation that makes it difficult for them to take the strong and courageous decisions that are required to push the process forward," said a member of Sarkozy's delegation.

The Israeli government has been weakened by the accusations of corruption that have come to be leveled against its prime minister. On the other hand, the authority of the Palestinian Fatah-led leadership is still reeling from a challenge from the radical Hamas movement, which is in control of the Gaza Strip.

Knowing all too well that boosting the peace process is tough calling, the president will therefore make a strong case for the Union for the Mediterranean (UPM), his pet project, in the hope that it will "eventually help bring the protagonists of the Arab-Israeli conflict together," said a presidential aid.

Further, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who, according to Paris, will be in the French capital for the official inauguration of the UPM on July 13, have ruled out any face to face meeting during the heads of state and governments summit.

Despite all these challenges, Paris has only demonstrated modest ambitions so far, nevertheless insisting that a new wave is blowing across the greater Middle East region, according to observers.

"Well, the peace process is not doing very well... but the Dohainter-Lebanese agreement, the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks and the conclusion of a truce between Israel and Hamas have revived some hope," a senior presidential aid was quoted as saying Friday.


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