The French diplomatic corps celebrating Bastille Day today, July 14, may feel perhaps that they have good reason to pat themselves on the back. Their new foreign minister, Michel Barnier, recently visited the area, came, saw - and if he did not conquer - then he at least successfully met all the goals he set for himself. He toured the ruins of the Muqata, where he expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people and with "its elected and legitimate leader"; he spoke out against Arafat's "bleak and undignified" isolation, and against "the closures, checkpoints, destructions and separation wall"; and he completed his demonstration of empathy by staying overnight in Ramallah.
For the sake of balance, Barnier sent Arafat a "clear message" in which he demanded that he meet his commitments to carry out reforms in the Palestinian Authority, to merge the Palestinian security forces, and support the Egyptian mediation initiative in advance of the disengagement from Gaza.
"The only leader that can force compromises on the Palestinian people has promised to do everything to fulfill the French demands," said the Paris version.
Finally, despite the nature of his visit, Barnier managed to cross the Middle Eastern minefield without getting involved in an undesirable crisis with Israel.
These descriptions, based for the most part on accounts presented by the Quai d'Orsay, are the object of ridicule in Jerusalem. On the one hand they are saying here that Barnier practically shoved himself into bed with Arafat. But when his spokespeople are asked about his overnight stay in Ramallah, they throw the ball back into Israel's court with the claim that it was Israel "that creates difficulties and would not permit them to travel at night between Ramallah and Jerusalem." This is proof, they are saying in Jerusalem, that the new minister is no more than a rookie caught up in the machinations of his ministry's dogmatic officials. Arafat responded favorably to the French demands? A poor joke, in Israel's opinion. After all, immediately after the visit, he declared to the media, "We listen to all advice, but take care of our own interests in accordance with our understanding."
If Barnier hoped to exit Ramallah as a hero to the Palestinians, he was forced to discover that no one was applauding him. And regarding the Israeli restraint vis-a-vis the visit, this should not be viewed as a failure of the policy of isolation for Arafat, but rather as a strategic decision to ignore the event, in order to make it - like the object of the visit - irrelevant.
Ultimately, they are saying in Jerusalem, the media mostly ignored the visit, and it was a failure for the French.
Israel would like to view Barnier's visit as indicative of the success of its policy to boycott Arafat's visitors. When Sharon introduced the policy in 2003, some feared that it would boomerang, and that Israel would find itself isolated in a "Muqata."
However, this policy, as some senior diplomats in Tel Aviv concede in private conversations, succeeded beyond all expectation. Ultimately, the European Union blinked first. The visits to Arafat decreased significantly. Over a dozen European foreign ministers have visited Israel in 2004, while only fewer than a third also met with Arafat.
Even among his European supporters, there is growing recognition that Arafat is an impediment, a "small scoundrel," as one ambassador put it.
But despite this, Israel's victory is incomplete. Sharon succeeded to some extent to remove Arafat from the equation in our relations with Europe, but he has not succeeded in removing him entirely from the game. Even those Europeans that maintain that Arafat is responsible for his own isolation are convinced that he should be given some role that would preserve his dignity and defuse the lethal bomb that attempting to remove him could set off. The shuttling by the Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman between Ramallah and Jerusalem has the support of the Quartet and proves that the question of Arafat's relevance remains relevant.
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