Paris, March 2002. Bernard Kouchner's expansive living room across from the stunning Jardin du Luxembourg. France - in the midst of an election campaign, which several weeks later turned out to have been one of the most dramatic it had ever known. Israel - in the midst of the intifada and reprisal actions in the territories.
The meeting with Kouchner had not been planned. His wife, Christine Ockrent, one of France's leading journalists, was surveying the political arena in her country for me on the eve of Jean-Marie le Pen's surprising ascent to the second round in the presidential elections. Kouchner, at that time the health minister in Lionel Jospin's Socialist government, had arrived home late in the evening. He joined the conversation and wanted to hear about what was happening in Israel. He didn't really need this. The situation on the ground was well known to him. He had no hesitations about expressing his opinions about the settlements policy in the territories, which he saw as "bullying and harmful to Israel." His uninhibited tongue did not linger over diplomatic phraseologies.
More than five years later, Kouchner is ostensibly the same Kouchner. Energetic, jumpy, impatient, scornful of political correctness. The French, it emerges, love this. In recent years, Kouchner has consistently been at the top of the rankings of the most popular politicians in the country.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose the Socialist Kouchner for the position of his foreign minister, there were those in Jerusalem who tensed up. "His love for Israel is indisputable," said a diplomatic source at the time, "but he is a stand-up comedian. Quick on the draw. Unexpected. An extrovert who could surprise you at any moment. He wants to advance the peace process and he could well use any provocation in order to achieve his aim."
In an interview with Haaretz this week, Kouchner tries to eradicate this impression. He is now playing to the hilt the role of his country's number 1 diplomat: It is Annapolis time, the time to express hope and optimism, the time to ignore the weaknesses of the negotiating sides: "In light of past and recent experience, and the obstacles the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are encountering at home, I can understand the mood of pessimism, but I am not a partner to it. For the first time since Taba, in January 2001, serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have started up again; there has been a renewal of a process that will lead to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel. We cannot allow ourselves to miss an opportunity like this.
"We have called for an international conference to be held, not because this causes us personal satisfaction, but rather in order to help the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is because international support - and more than that - international guarantees, especially with respect to the security aspect, as well as the agreement of the neighboring countries, will be essential. Annapolis fulfills these requirements, even if it is only a modest first step." There are those who call Kouchner, 68, "the first Jewish foreign minister in the history of France." Rabbinical law would not agree with that definition: Although his grandfather and grandmother perished at Auschwitz, he was born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. He himself says that he is "a half-Jew," but he also adopts Jean-Paul Sartre's famous declaration that "it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew." To one of his Israeli interlocutors he recently said that his split identity complicates his life: He bears the burden of proof with respect to the Jewish world and also with respect to the world that is not Jewish.
Kouchner is proud of the close relations that have developed between Israel and France since Sarkozy's election. He rejects the assessment that the change is mostly stylistic or declarative. "Our country will never compromise on Israel's security," he says. "Our commitment is anchored in deeds and goes far beyond the framework of political relations." For 40 years, French diplomacy was pro-Arab and anti-American and had Gaullist aspirations to be the force that balances between Washington and Moscow. The motto now is to work with the Americans and not against them. Israeli diplomats also testify to "a substantive change" in the relations. "It is clear that there is no alteration in the basic positions held by the French, for example their support for Israel's return to the 1967 borders," says a senior diplomatic source, "but in the era of intimate and intensive relations that has now begun, even when there are disagreements, they happen in coordination between allies, and not between states that are suspicious of one another."
Precisely because he defines himself as "one of the family," Kouchner the Jew feels that he is entitled to criticize Israel. When his "personal friend" Defense Minister Ehud Barak chose this week to express "respect and admiration for the settlers in the territories and the unauthorized outposts," Kouchner called for an immediate freeze on construction in the settlements, which he defined as "not only illegal but also the main obstacle to achieving peace." He told the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam that "nothing justifies the development of the settlements. Not natural increase and not security. On the contrary, it increases the sense of injustice and the lack of security."
For a moment, it was possible to identify something in the foreign minister's remarks evocative of the young medical doctor who volunteered to help the starving in the war in Biafra in 1968, founded Doctors Without Borders in 1971 and articulated the idea of "the duty to intervene" in countries where the humanitarian situation justifies this. As someone who still wants to see his role as a mission aimed at advancing human rights "and curing the world," he declares that "with my friend [Quartet envoy] Tony Blair, I am planning to lay the foundations for the future Palestinian state."
In his remarks, Kouchner refers to the Paris conference, an event planned for next month that has already earned the nickname of "the economic Annapolis." About 80 countries and financial institutions are expected to participate in the December 17 meeting, which is aimed at raising donations and providing an economic basis for the process that will start at "the diplomatic Annapolis": "We will need Israel's help so that the Palestinian state will be viable economically; so as to ensure at long last freedom of movement for people and goods on the ground; so that the Palestinians will quickly feel the difference in their everyday lives and so that they will be given hope for a better and worthy life."
Another arena where Kouchner is investing his all - thus far with no success - is Lebanon. After visiting there in the summer of 2006, he told Haaretz correspondent Daniel Ben Simon: "I have never seen such destruction. Everything all around me was in ruins. South Beirut was destroyed almost entirely by the Israeli air force, never mind the towns in the south. You did not leave a single building whole. Beirut so much resembles Tel Aviv and the Israelis so much resemble the Lebanese. It is a tragedy that instead of there being peace between the countries, they are destroying each other."
Since becoming foreign minister, Kouchner has visited Lebanon another seven times. This week, from Israel, he returned again to Beirut in an attempt to find a way out of the dead end that is preventing the holding of a presidential election. In the context of his efforts, Kouchner has steered traditional French policy in a new direction: Last July he invited all of the Lebanese factions to Paris. Including Hezbollah. Israel's quiet protest and the noisier protest by the Jewish community in France were rebuffed.
This week - during which Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to pull out all the stops and establish an alternative government in his country - Kouchner continued to defend his Lebanon policy: "No one questions that Hezbollah has to be involved in the search for a solution to the crisis. Without Hezbollah, a sovereign Lebanon will not be possible. Our aim is that the organization be fully integrated into the state and respect [UN Security Council] Resolution 1701." Kouchner prefers to attribute responsibility for the crisis to Nasrallah's patrons, Syria and Iran, which he accuses indirectly of intervening in the course of Lebanon's elections in Lebanon and even thwarting them. This accusation led Sarkozy - for the first time since he was elected - to contact Syrian President Bashar Assad "in order to examine the situation in Lebanon."
Did the France of Sarkozy and Kouchner erred in its decision to renew the dialogue with Damascus, thus ending the strict boycott policy that Jacques Chirac led when he was president? "We have no interest in conflict with Syria," says Kouchner, "but we are asking that it play a positive role in the region, and especially in Lebanon, where it has a great deal of influence. If Damascus cooperates and Lebanon emerges from the crisis, we will agree to restore relations to normal and to advance Syria's return to the bosom of the international community."
When asked whether he is in favor of an Israeli-Syrian dialogue, he replies laconically, perhaps because of the worsening situation in Lebanon, that Syria "is an important constituent element in any comprehensive peace agreement in the region." In Israel, there are those who fear that if the French have come to the conclusion that pragmatism and realpolitik necessitate bringing Syria and Hezbollah into the discussion about Lebanon's future, in the name of the same principles it will not be able to leave Hamas outside the political game in the long run. At first, Kouchner rejects this idea: France, according to him, is committed to the principles stipulated by the Quartet to Hamas - namely, recognition of Israel, respect for prior agreements signed by the Palestinians, and the abandonment of violence. "Continued launching of rockets, as well as the holding of the French-Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, are unacceptable, just as Hamas' oppression of Fatah in Gaza is unacceptable," he says.
Nonetheless, he adds: "Of course Gaza must not be abandoned to its fate nor should the possibility be dismissed out of hand that Hamas will be able to change some day. This is both a humanitarian and a political need. Inevitably the moment will come when the question of including the Gaza Strip in the peace process will arise."
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