Friday, 27 July 2007

French Hizbollah policy under fire

By Shirli Sitbon Paris

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is expected in Beirut tomorrow for two days of talks to follow up his Paris meeting with Hizbollah and other Lebanese factions two weeks ago.

Mr Kouchner said France’s goal was to help defrost relations between Lebanese parties so that they would reach a common position and avoid new violence.

“In Lebanon, dialogue usually comes after the war. We have to prevent this scenario from repeating itself,” Mr Kouchner said. “Everything must be done to avoid war. Inviting all Lebanese parties to France was reasonable.”

However, Mr Kouchner has faced fierce criticism for his policy of engagement.

The Liberation newspaper evaluated that by inviting Hizbollah, France had risked giving the group the beginning of international legitimacy with no concessions in return.
“Hizbollah performed a good operation,” wrote Liberation, accusing Mr Kouchner of overstating the results of the meeting.

Richard Prasquier, the President of Jewish umbrella group CRIF, told the JC that French Jews were “saddened” by the meeting with Hizbollah but that they would not continue lobbying against new talks.

“All we can do at this point is hope that the discussions will lead to some results regarding the Israeli hostages,” Mr Prasquier continued. “We have seen no progress up until now, but President Sarkozy clearly promised to the hostages’ families he would make every effort to push this issue forward.”

American ambassador to France Craig Stapleton told the JC that the US backed the French approach.
“We support any step that reinforces democracy in Lebanon,” declared Mr Stapleton. “We support any step that keeps Syria out of Lebanon.”

“France has always been active in our region so its new initiative in Lebanon seems perfectly normal,” added Israeli embassy spokeswoman Nina Ben-Ami. “However, it isn’t useful to give Hizbollah legitimacy.”

According to geopolitical analyst Raphael Drai, France had no choice but to invite Hizbollah to discussions.

“This is a complex game. The goal is to prevent civil war in Lebanon and to isolate Iran,” Drai told the JC. “Leaving Hizbollah out of the game would only make it more dangerous."
“While encouraging inter-Lebanese dialogue, Paris is also trying to pull Syria away from Iran by launching new contacts with Damascus,” added Mr Drai. “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is obviously aware of that, is trying to prevent the manoeuvre by reinforcing ties with Syria.”

As Mr Kouchner prepares for new talks with Lebanese parties, observers wonder whether France will launch contacts with Hamas next.

“Don’t mix unrelated issues,” warned Mr Kouchner in his press conference after the Paris meeting, denying any plans to invite Hamas officials. “Our only current partner in Palestine is [President] Mahmoud Abbas.”

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