Sometimes, if you smash two stories together, you end up with something interesting; sometimes you get something worrisome. This is one of the latter.
The first story is about France, a member of the P5+1 negotiating a deal with Iran on nuclear capabilities. The French government has expressed increasing concern that the emerging deal is flawed -- perhaps fatally. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reportedly told the French Parliament, "France will not accept [a deal] if it is not clear that inspections can be done at all Iranian installations, including military sites." He added, "Yes to an agreement, but not to an agreement that will enable Iran to have the atomic bomb. That is the position of France, which is independent and peaceful."
The French Ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, told an American audience "the most worrying aspect of the agreement" is that Iran will become a "one-year breakout state." He expressed concern that if Iran becomes a nuclear state, other countries in the region will also seek to become nuclear powers.
The French position creates a problem for President Obama because the deal has to be agreed on by the P5+1, not the "P4+1-with-one-vote-in-opposition."
Is President Obama supporting France in its efforts to be a major player in the Middle East, in exchange for French support for the P5+1 deal with Iran? Above, Secretary of State John Kerry (left) is pictured meeting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, on February 27, 2013. (Image source: U.S. State Dept.)
The second story is also about France. With historic ties to the Middle East, but extremely limited military capabilities there (or anywhere), France is trying to be a diplomatic power broker. Christian Makarian, deputy editor of L'Express, wrote recently that after Assad used chemical weapons against his people, France wanted to intervene in Syria but was dissuaded by President Obama. "Hollande and... Fabius frequently made reference to last year's backtracking on military intervention in Syria, which they consider one of their greater policy failings." This, he postulates, accounts for French willingness to support military action in Iraq.
Influence can come from arms sales, and here the French excel. From 2005-2010, France was the third largest supplier of arms to the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, after the U.S. and Russia. MENA now accounts for nearly half the orders from the French military. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Tunisia and Algeria are clients, and this year, 5.2 billion euros in orders from Egypt. It amounts to a 17.3 percent increase in total arms sales abroad for 2014 over 2013.
Influence also comes from diplomacy -- and this is where the stories begin to collide.
France, Britain and Germany had drafted a UN Security Council Resolution late last year to set parameters for establishing a Palestinian State and "ending the conflict." It was not submitted because of the impending Israeli election. France is prepared to try now with a draft that would "solve" the problem by using the 1949 Armistice Line as a reference point for a Palestinian state with a shared capital in Jerusalem, a "fair" solution for refugees, and possible land swaps. It would also require that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish State."
Fabius, speaking in New York, said, "these parameters have to be defined and recognized by the Security Council and that obviously the two parties have to discuss, but the discussion will be accompanied by an international effort."
A French official called it a "backdoor" for negotiations, explaining in a press report that "all actors including the Americans now realize that all other ways have been explored, without success."
The U.S. has historically opposed "internationalizing" the conflict. Giving the UN authority to establish requirements for the parties violates the Oslo Accords, something Israel opposes and the Palestinians support.
In early May, President Obama indicated that he intended to veto the French proposal, saying "a big overarching deal" is probably not "possible in the next year, given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges I think that exist for President Abbas." In the same interview, he suggested "confidence-building measures" that would have an impact on the economic and social lives of Palestinians and Israelis.
However, the President appears to have moved toward the French position. He recently told Israeli television:
If in fact, there's no prospect of an actual peace process, if nobody believes there's a peace process, then it becomes more difficult to argue with those who are concerned about settlement construction, those who are concerned about the current situation, it's more difficult for me to say to them, 'Be patient. Wait, because we have a process here.'"
His own expressed skepticism about the achievability of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement appears to have given way to the French notion that "all other ways have been explored," and that it is time to let the UN determine parameters for a "big overarching deal." And, as it happens, the French draft corresponds with the President Obama's own -- strongly held -- belief that Israel has to ascribe to the President's view, despite having just elected a Prime Minister who disagrees:
The most important thing, I think, that we can do right now in strengthening Israel's position is to describe very clearly why I have believed that a two-state solution is the best security plan for Israel over the long term... but also, at the end of the day, to say to any Israeli prime minister that it will require some risks in order to achieve peace.
The "risks" sound ominously like Secretary of State Kerry's 2013 "warning" that Israel might face a "third intifada" if it didn't toe the then-American, now-French line. "I mean does Israel want a third Intifada?" he asked. "I've got news for you. Today's status quo will not be tomorrow's."
In Washington this week, Ambassador Araud used extraordinarily tough language against Israel in a series of Twitter exchanges with American supporters of Israel, culminating in the "blocking" of one of them. Silly kids' stuff, but the air is poisoned. The CEO of the French cell phone company Orange declared his desire to boycott Israel, while Orange rakes in money from its operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a major human rights violator.
Smash the two stories together, you get an American president supporting France in its efforts to be a major player in the Middle East in exchange for French support of the P5+1 deal with Iran.
In both cases, guess who pays the price: Israel.