France has always been a country that cares first and foremost about itself, which is normal, but sometimes it is so calculating that it comes across as cold and taciturn.
France is a huge economic exporter to the Arab world. Its wheat and military exports to Saudi Arabia are literally in the billions of euros.
At the same time, France is a founding member of the European Union, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a strong member of any Western alliance of which the U.S. is the leader. This means that Paris has to balance its interests with the Arab world with its role in the Western alliance.
In October, France was eager to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons, only to see America suddenly back off as a result of an agreement with Russia.
Indistinct foreign policy
In the Middle Eastern policy, the French have been slightly leaning in favor of the Arab position while maintaining its good relations with both Israel and the United States. For years, Arab leaders and ideologues have romanticized France’s role as the savior of Palestinians and the Arab world, only to be disappointed when nothing happens.
France’s political calculation and attempts to be seen as neutral sometimes comes close to being absurd.
One foreign diplomat once told me that a French leader felt he had to stay in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas longer than he wanted just to give the appearance to the waiting press that he was actually conducting business, when in fact he was simply killing time.
This mentality was exposed during this week’s visit by the domestically unpopular President Francois Hollande to Israel and Palestine.
Israel gave Hollande the red-carpet treatment largely for his country’s hardline position in the P5+1 talks with Iran. The president responded in kind, delivering a pro-Israel speech in the Knesset and during all his other outings.
Hollande also made the routine visit to Ramallah, met with Abbas and hit all the right notes at all his press conferences.
He used the word Palestine a few times when referring to his visit to the Israel-occupied Palestinian areas and repeatedly talked about the two-state solution and the need for Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and Palestine.
But the cold calculation and constant attempt to appear balanced and fair to both sides suddenly came apart when he dealt with the issue that Israelis hate to hear about: settlements.
Hollande correctly opposed the latest settlement announcements, including the decision to build in the controversial E1 area near Jerusalem.
Palestinians and even the U.S. have staunchly opposed this particular settlement for its potential to deny any serious contiguity in the West Bank, as it blocks the north-south axis of a future Palestinian state.
Not stepping on anyone’s toes
In his remarks, Hollande was careful not to criticize settlements as such, but the possibility that the announcements might complicate things.
In his speech at the Knesset and at press conferences alongside Abbas and Netanyahu, Hollande had the same tone.
Speaking to the Knesset, the French president said that settlements “complicate negotiations and make the two-state solution very difficult.”
Despite the fact that the International Court of Justice at the Hague considers settlements illegal, and despite the fact that his own government and the EU, of which France is a founding member, also consider settlements built in occupied areas a violation of international law, specifically of the Geneva Convention, Hollande is worried that the announcement at this time “complicates” things.
In other words, if it had been made at a different time, not now when talks are taking place, he would not have been so opposed to them.
Hollande misses his change
A reporter who asked the French president if he was willing label the settlements. as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did during a joint interview with Palestinian and Israeli TV, as “illegal”.
It was a perfect opportunity for the European leader to say something serious while being able to hide behind France’s (and Israel’s) ally.
Instead, Hollande repeated that settlements complicate things and that they damage chances for a two-state solution. He described them for what they are: a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
France of all countries should be familiar with the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was produced to deal with prolonged occupations. It came about after, what seemed at the time long, German occupation of France in World War II.
The International Committee of the Red Cross states: “It is unlawful under the Fourth Geneva Convention for an occupying power to transfer parts of its own population into the territory it occupies. This means that international humanitarian law prohibits the establishment of settlements, as these are a form of population transfer into occupied territory. Any measure designed to expand or consolidate settlements is also illegal. Confiscation of land to build or expand settlements is similarly prohibited.”
Instead of talking about “complicating” the peace process, the French leader should have simply said that settlements are illegal.
This article was first published in the Jordan Times on Nov. 20, 2013.
Daoud Kuttab, an award winning Palestinian journalist who resides in Jerusalem and Amman. Mr. Kuttab is the director general of Community Media Network a media NGO that runs a radio station in Amman (al balad radio 92.4fm) a newsweb site ammannet.net and a TV production operation in Palestine Penmedia (penmedia.ps) which is producing the Palestinian version of Sesame street. You can read his blogs on DaoudKuttab.com and find him on Twitter @DaoudKuttab.