French FM to Haaretz: Israel Will Act Before Iran Gets Bomb

Kouchner says Iran with an atomic bomb is unacceptable, but more time needed for diplomacy to work.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner dismisses the idea that even one nuclear bomb makes the Iranians immune to attack, he told Haaretz in an interview Friday.

"I honestly don't believe that it will give any immunity to Iran. First, because you will hit them before. And this is the danger. Because Israel has always said that it will not wait for the bomb to be ready. I think that they [the Iranians] know. Everybody knows," he said.

Kouchner says he is pleased with developments over the past few months in the Middle East. He is happy with what he has heard about the work of the Palestinian Authority in Jenin, where he visited Saturday, and with the indirect talks between Israel and Syria, the political arrangement in Lebanon and the cease-fire in Gaza.

Only two issues worry him, he told Haaretz during his sixth visit to Israel - Iran and the future of the Annapolis process. Kouchner says he knows Israel is preparing a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, and wants more time for diplomacy.

"Iran with an atomic bomb is unacceptable at all," Kouchner said, in keeping with a number of aggressive statements in the past on the issue. But how can it be prevented?" "Talking, talking, talking, and offering dialogue, sanctions, sanctions, sanctions. Is the alternative to bomb first - I think not," he said.

When reminded that France has been trying to talk to Iran for years with no success, Kouchner responded: "Since the election of President [Nicolas] Sarkozy our strategy was the same - sanctions but always dialogue. But you are right - dialogue with whom - we tried, we talked to the Iranians and a lot of people tried with no real result. But the last meeting was in Geneva with the Americans.

"I know that some people in Israel and in the army are preparing a military solution or not a solution but a military attack. I don't know. This is not according to my opinion the solution."

Kouchner said that contrary to Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran will have a nuclear capability in 2009, "the assessment of our intelligence people is a bit longer - apart from two years, they say. But honestly - I think that you are well informed, and so are the Americans and so are we. It has always been the case between two and four years. But to make what? One bomb."

Kouchner was asked if Israel were to attack Iran, would it not improve the basis for dialogue, considering that Syria started negotiating with Israel after Israel attacked it.

"It is not the same thing. Bombing a very little place, a factory, etc. The action that you are supposed to prepare is a vast and large action. War is never a solution, but sometimes I know it has been used, so let me be precise - we are not absolutely desperate - we have to start trying to get some allies, isolating [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, trying to help the people in favor of more modernity," he said.

"We never succeed in offering an alternative to the Iranian people. They all believe, because they are nationalists. Because it is a great country, because they are in a place where nothing can be solved in the region - we have to deal with that and certainly to talk with them, but with whom?" Kouchner said.

At 69, Kouchner, whose father was Jewish, is one of the world's most experienced diplomats in dealing with crises and conflict. He studied medicine and began his political career as a Communist. During the Paris student protests in 1968 Kouchner organized the medical faculty in a sympathy strike. He later established the human rights groups Medecins sans Frontieres and Medecins du Monde and worked as a volunteer in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

He served as health minister in French socialist governments, headed the United Nations civil administration in Kosovo and last year, when Sarkozy came to power, he was a surprise appointment to the foreign ministry in Prime Minister Francois Fillon's center-right cabinet, despite his support in the presidential elections for the left-wing candidate Segolene Royal.

Livni will change

Kouchner has two main goals for his visit to the region. To assess the political situation in Israel and try to save the Annapolis process, he is to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, ministers Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Kouchner is worried that the diplomatic process with the Palestinians "will be lost" during the transition period between the present and future U.S. administrations.

Kouchner believes that there must be a Palestinian state and says that "the roots of all the pretexts in the area is the Palestinian struggle and the necessity of the Palestinian state. If there is a perception coming out of the Palestinian people that things are getting better and moving a bit - this is an additional asset to calm down this main danger which is Iran. To cut the reason and the roots of the Middle East angriness - and the biggest asset is Mr. Abu Mazen," he said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The French foreign minister elegantly side-stepped the question about who is right - Olmert, who says that peace is at hand - or Abbas, who has rejected Olmert's proposal for a shelf agreement with the PA and says it does not meet the Palestinians' expectations. "I don't know. Nobody knows. Probably both I believe," he said.

"It has been a big hope - yes - and they were talking in a good way to each other - the main argument for hope in the peace process - but unfortunately he left - and the victim was Abu Mazen - because without Olmert he must restart the process. Fortunately, Tzipi Livni was talking to Abu Ala," Kouchner said, referring to the Palestinians' negotiating chief, Ahmed Qureia.

Has Kouchner read Olmert's comments supporting withdrawal from all the territories and a solution in Jerusalem?

"Of course. And I know that some progress had been made, even on settlements. But this is not the main problem. I think the main problem is the refugees and Jerusalem, but more the refugees. Olmert and Livni did not have the perception about this."

To the idea that Livni rejects as a non-starter the discussion of the return of even one Palestinian refugee to Israel, Kouchner said: "I think she will change. This is always the case for people that are in charge for politics and for life. They get back to some kind of consensus, and in order to get it you have to be tougher than the other - this is ridiculous - this is a human circus."

But to what will she change?

"I don't know how many - 10,000 or 100,000 I don't know - but the main part must go to the Palestinian state. This is the reason that we have to stick to the idea of two states in the same area," the foreign minister said.

Feeling 'out of the democracy'

Kouchner is worried about both settler violence and the settlers' distress. "People might be desperate if they are obliged to leave - I can understand that. I know it is very difficult for these people - but it is difficult for everybody including the Palestinians."

Asked whether he was concerned about Israel's democracy, he responded: "No. Israeli democracy is strong. But I know that in democracy some people are feeling as if they were out of democracy.Look what happened in Gaza - it was not easy but Sharon did it - certainly it was not the best way according to my opinion - I think that things like that [disengagement] must be prepared. Because this is more difficult to say - 'okay, we our changing completely our views and our policy - it is over for you.'

"Meanwhile, they [the settlers] have been accepted and pushed there by a lot of people and a lot of politicians."