hoffenberg - Ofer Vaknin - June 13 2011
Valerie Hoffenberg, the French president’s Mideast envoy. 'France proved it has a role in the international arena, and does not need the U.S. to fulfill this role.' Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Valerie Hoffenberg, 47, a French Jew and a Zionist of Algerian-Tunisian descent, has for the past two years or so been serving as the French president's special envoy to the Middle East. "Sarkozy's turbo engine" is the term used to describe her. Hoffenberg, a lawyer by training, was asked by the president to help bring about Mideast peace "from the bottom up": to break through by means of the economy, education, culture, commerce and the environment. She is behind numerous regional projects and collaborative efforts, the pinnacle of which is creation of the industrial park in Bethlehem. While Hoffenberg deals mostly with what she defines as "alternative diplomacy," she has not been deterred from promoting official diplomatic moves, which recently took the form of advancing the initiative to convene a Middle East peace conference in Paris by the end of July.

According to Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, the Americans cannot act alone in the Middle East. But if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could challenge President Barack Obama at home in Washington, presumably the Sarkozy-Juppe initiative will be "small change" for him. Why do we need a French initiative now and why would you succeed where the Americans failed?

The Americans failed whereas France has proved it has a role in the international arena (in Libya, for example, in confronting the Iranian nuclear program, and in the Ivory Coast ), and that it does not need the United States in order to fulfill this role. Apart from that, we are striving to push the stalled process back on track, where it will move forward and neutralize the Palestinian initiative in the UN in September - an initiative that is bad for all of us. A situation has been created where the conflict has been taken beyond its limits on the one hand, by the Palestinians and their 'September initiative' and, on the other hand, by Israel which created in the United States a three-way conflict, which includes in addition to itself, Obama and the U.S. Congress. From our perspective, what is urgent for you is to stop the 'externalization' of the conflict and to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Given the American opposition, the European division and the Palestinians' fears, does the September initiative even have any chance?

Everyone realizes now that it's a bad idea. Based on my discussions, I believe that the Palestinians will eventually back down.

Yet even your peace initiative is not devoid of problems. You are proposing discussing borders as a starting point for talks. That is a nonstarter as far as the Israeli government is concerned.

This is not an ironclad proposal. On the contrary, let Netanyahu come to Paris and present his counterproposals.

Do you accept the position of Netanyahu and the right whereby the 1967 borders are not defendable?

I have heard many versions with respect to this question, but I want to stress: We are presenting proposals; we never presumed to also present solutions. All we want is for the counterproposals of the sides to be placed on the conference table, and for there to be a possibility of conducting negotiations around them.

President Sarkozy will never act in a way that harms Israel's security. On the eve of Netanyahu's May visit to Paris, [the president] declared it was a mistake to demand a freeze on settlement construction as a precondition for resuming the talks. This was a strong statement meant to express Sarkozy's approach, which differs from that of Obama. Our idea for a conference is meant to show the president's determination to work to move things along, using a different method."

Obama accepted the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, whereas the French initiative ignores it.

President Sarkozy stated that France supports the "two states for two peoples" approach. In stating as much, he means a state for the Palestinians and a Jewish state for the Jews.

But Sarkozy and Juppe also hinted that "if nothing happens" by September, France will recognize the Palestinian state. Is this a veiled threat against Israel?

No. Their comments are directed at both sides. The president and the foreign minister hope that something will move ahead by September. That is the backdrop to their peace initiative. Their statements were intended to stress that no matter what happens, they will not stop here.

Can other steps be expected, economic sanctions, for example? Promoting an international resolution that would call for a freeze on the settlements?

Absolutely not. France is Israel's friend. What interests us is promoting peace.

So the chance of France recognizing a Palestinian state in September is, according to your comments, not really an option?

We'll see in September.

Is it even possible to conduct negotiations today when Israel's partner includes Hamas? And how do you feel about the Shalit family's appeal to the French justice system?

We hope that Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] will get Hamas to recognize the Quartet's three conditions. We will not back down on this and we will not talk to a government does that not accept these conditions. Moreover, it will be very hard for us to talk with a unity government that is holding a French captive. I suggested to President Sarkozy adding [release of] Gilad Shalit to the Quartet's three conditions as a prerequisite for our recognition of the Palestinian government. I hope that he accepts my proposal. Either way, the appeal to the legal authorities in France will obligate a French judge to investigate his abduction - a development that should of course be viewed favorably.

France has created a linkage between the revolts in the region and the urgency of advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace. Why?

The revolutions actually took the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off center stage. In all of those countries, the people's revolts were unrelated to the peace process; on the contrary, they actually did so because their leaders used the conflict to channel their populations' frustrations instead of promoting reforms and ending corruption.

However, it is impossible not to see the Palestinians as also being part of those same sectors striving for greater freedoms and democracy, and Israel must work to help them realize these goals.

Juppe stated that there is no "double standard" in French foreign policy. What is the difference between the massacres perpetrated by Muammar Gadhafi and Bashar Assad?

Politics is the art of the possible. The moment Gadhafi started acting against his own people, France was the first to launch a campaign against him. As for Assad, we now expect a Russian and Chinese veto, but are working nevertheless to pass a UN resolution against Syria. The complex military campaign in Libya does not now allow for another war to be launched right now. This is not a video game. In any case, Assad is finished. If there is a lesson from the revolutions in the region it is that our decisions do not determine their outcome; the populations do.

What do you think about the Strauss-Kahn affair? Will Sarkozy and your party, the UMP, benefit from the incident?

This is a human drama and the UMP cannot and is not working to benefit from it. The pictures showing Strauss-Kahn handcuffed were a great shock to French people on the left and on the right: As far as all of us are concerned, he is innocent until proven otherwise, whereas the Americans treated him as someone whose criminality has already been proven. As someone who knows him personally, I find it hard to believe he committed the acts attributed to him.