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Perspectives 82

June 22, 2009

Netanyahu and Sarkozy:
Personal Chemistry versus Political Disagreements

by Tsilla Hershco

Executive Summary: Netanyahu and Sarkozy resemble each other in their charismatic leadership, their dynamic capitalist approach and their global view of security threats. Yet, during their scheduled meeting in Paris on June 24, 2009, substantial disagreements might surface on issues such as French demands for the freezing of the settlements in Judea and Samaria and the division of Jerusalem. These demands are fervently opposed by Netanyahu. Concurrently, the French, inter alia, criticize Netanyahu for his firm preconditions that the Palestinians 1) recognize Israel as a Jewish state and 2) demilitarize.

On June 24, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are scheduled to meet in Paris for the first time since Israeli elections in February 2009. The two charismatic leaders, who have met several times in the past, and who have publicly declared their mutual sentiments of friendship and respect, have much in common.

Both leaders represent a dynamic capitalist approach regarding internal economic reforms intended to adapt their countries to the new challenges of a globalized world. Furthermore, both of them believe that regional cooperation through common economic projects constitute an effective instrument in promoting peace in crisis-stricken regions such as the Middle East.

Both leaders declare their attachment to democratic liberal values and stress the threats to democratic regimes emanating from fanatic terror groups and countries. Sarkozy and Netanyahu attribute importance to enhancing cooperation among such democratic and moderate regimes in order to contain the ongoing fanatic Islamist assault. Both leaders ascribe tremendous significance to international security issues and especially to the challenges of coping with global terror and proliferation of non-conventional arms. Consequently, they regard the relations of their countries with the United States as a top priority in confronting the abovementioned threats.

Yet despite the mutual declarations of friendship between the two heads of states, some significant divergences might surface.

Referring to the Iranian dossier, indeed, both Sarkozy and Netanyahu regard the Iranian nuclear issue as a central threat to the world's stability and security. However, Sarkozy believes that only dialogue on one hand and international sanctions on the other can stop the Iranian nuclear project. Accordingly, the French president vehemently opposes any eventual military option, which in his opinion might endanger the entire world. On the contrary, Netanyahu seems more reserved toward the consequences of dialogue and international sanctions and does not exclude the option of preventive military intervention against Iran.

Other potential significant disagreements refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Sarkozy congratulated Netanyahu's foreign policy address at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University on June 14. The French particularly praised Netanyahu's recognition of the Palestinians' right for a state of their own. Nevertheless, there are numerous substantial disagreements between the two countries on issues such as the freezing of settlements, as well as the lifting of security barriers in Judea and Samaria and the opening of border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu's firm preconditions for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as well as his demand for the demilitarization of the future Palestinian state were equally criticized by the French.

Eventually, the most important bone of contention between the two leaders is connected to the issue of Jerusalem. While Netanyahu declares that the city is indivisible and will remain the everlasting capital of Israel, Sarkozy insists that East Jerusalem should become the capital of the Palestinian state.

A final core issue which might evoke serious disagreements between the two leaders relates to the settlement of Palestinian refugees. Even though former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared in October 2008, after a meeting with Sarkozy, that the French president perceives the settlement of the refugees within the future Palestinian state, the speaker of the French foreign ministry insisted on French support for UN Resolution 194 (December 1948), which implies the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

In conclusion, it seems that Netanyahu's forthcoming visit to the city of lights will probably expose significant political discrepancies between Israeli and French positions. It is doubtful whether the personal chemistry between the two leaders can bridge the gap in their positions, unless they decide to accent their common objectives, interests and values.

Dr. Tsilla Hershco is a research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, and specializes in Franco-Israeli relations.

BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation.

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