Netanyahu Risks Diplomatic Rift With France Over Settlement Freeze

Relations between Netanyahu and Sarkozy have become tense due to Israel's refusal to extend the West Bank settlement freeze.

Relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have become considerably tense following a telephone conversation between the two leaders 10 days ago. During that conversation, the French leader apparently asked Netanyahu to extend the settlement freeze in the West Bank so that peace talks with the Palestinians could be resumed.

Two European diplomats familiar with the contents of the exchange said Sarkozy was furious with Netanyahu for canceling his participation in a summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris at the last moment. Other participants at the event, hosted by Sarkozy, included Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy Oct. 29, 2010 (AP)

Sarkozy was so angry at Netanyahu that the French leader's bureau informed other European leaders about what the two had discussed on the phone.

Sources at the Prime Minister's Bureau, however, said that "the conversation was a routine call between friends." "The Prime Minister had agreed to go to the Paris summit," the same sources added, "but unfortunately the Palestinians set political preconditions to holding the meeting that Netanyahu was not willing to accept."

About a month ago, Sarkozy proposed to Netanyahu and Abbas that they both take part in a summit aimed at overcoming the crisis stemming from the construction freeze and facilitating the continuation of direct negotiations between the two sides. Netanyahu and Abbas accepted the French proposal and preparations were underway.

According to the European diplomats, Sarkozy had scheduled the Paris summit for October 21, representing a first step toward restarting the peace talks. The subsequent stage would have taken place at a summit of the Union for the Mediterranean, scheduled for November in Barcelona, which both Netanyahu and Abbas are also expected to attend.

The diplomats said Netanyahu decided not to attend the Paris event once he realized that the U.S. administration viewed it as a positive development.

"Netanyahu realized that he would come under enormous pressure on the issue of the settlements and decided to cancel his participation to avoid that pressure," the diplomats said.

During the telephone conversation between Netanyahu and Sarkozy 10 days ago, the Israeli prime minister informed the French president that he would not attend the summit because the timing was wrong. Sarkozy replied by telling Netanyahu that he did not accept his explanations and did not understand the reasoning for his cancellation.

Sarkozy stressed that there is no sense in ending the settlement freeze and called on Netanyahu to extend the building moratorium in the West Bank so as not to undermine the peace process.