Vedrine: My Initiative Is Alive and Kicking

French foreign minister: `A solution cannot be reached solely via military oppression'

PARIS - Has France given up on ever managing to change anything in the Middle East? Has Paris reached the conclusion that the Americans' renewed efforts in the region means it should step aside for Washington? Absolutely not - in public, you hear quite the opposite.

The French initiative put forward at the recent European summit in Casares, Spain is still alive and kicking, and perhaps even destined for greatness, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said in an interview with Ha'aretz at his Quai d'Orsay office.

The initiative, or "the French ideas," as Vedrine describes it so as not to create unnecessary antagonism in Israel, will prove to be creative and effective. Although his German and British counterparts disassociated themselves from it in public, Vedrine says reality demands the "ideas." He said: "All those involved, the Israelis, the Palestinians and all those countries looking to achieve peace in the Middle East, including France, have come to an impasse. A dead end."

Speaking on Friday afternoon, Vedrine said: "I have just received reports that 55 people have been killed today alone. This is the highest number of dead in one day since the Lebanon War. That is why we put forward our ideas based on recognition of a Palestinian state and holding elections in the Palestinian territories.

"Our ideas are a way to pass a clear message that it is not possible to reach a solution solely through military oppression," he said. "The outlook must be radically altered - a cease-fire must be achieved, while at the same time returning to a political dialogue which will focus on both security matters and the peace process."

The foreign minister says that despite the opposition to his ideas, more and more statesmen around the world are opposed to the policies of the Israeli government. They understand that "the policy of oppression is not effective against terrorism. It is a fact that Israelis' insecurity is growing and there have never been so many attacks before."

Even though Vedrine makes no attempt to hide his disappointment with his German and British colleagues who decided to accept Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's insistence on seven days of quiet, he stresses that the European countries' policies are becoming more and more coherent and tight, and are coming closer to Paris's position. As an example he says, "for many years, most of our partners in Europe did not support the idea of a Palestinian state. Since 1999, this has been a shared position."

France's uniqueness, according to Vedrine, lies in its ability to be able to sometimes say publicly what all the other members of the European Union believe. Some of them, he continues once again hinting at Germany and Britain, are simply influenced by foreign interests, both "internal and external," as he puts it. (Britain is closely tied to the U.S., Germany to its past.) Other states do not dare stand behind their real beliefs.

Vedrine thinks renewed American efforts in the region reinforce his view and that even they are now moving closer to the French position. "It all began when Ariel Sharon did not get all he wanted when he visited Washington," says the ministers. "Later on, we heard [President George] Bush come out with declarations about the humanitarian situation of the Palestinians, and now, we see that even though the U.S. stated in recent weeks that [special envoy Anthony] Zinni would not be returned to the Middle East unless the situation improved, they are now sending him back."

Vedrine said he doubted the reports that the U.S. Administration would give up on the demand for seven days of quiet. "Perhaps they will no longer insist on `days of quiet' but they will also not announce that they are totally relinquishing this demand." One can only assume Vedrine would be even more skeptical of Sharon's latest position on "days of quiet."

The French foreign minister did say he is not convinced of the sincerity of the American initiative: "Sincerity and politics don't always go together. There is no doubt that [Vice President Dick] Cheney's mission to the Middle East play a part here. But anyway, whether the American step comes from internal inducement, or whether it is a political necessity, this is in any case an encouraging sign."

But despite this and despite the determination he exhibits over the advancement of the "French ideas," or "the Vedrine ideas," the French foreign minister has apparently come to the conclusion that a solution to the conflict lies more than anything with Israeli public opinion. Bush's latest initiative may be "positive" according to Vedrine, but he also defines it as a "tiny step."

Europe, meanwhile, is not managing to come up with a united front, while no salvation is coming forth from the Arab states, either. "The Saudi proposal is incredibly important and the Israeli decision-makers should take it seriously," says Vedrine. "And yet, the Saudis alone cannot bring about a renewal of the negotiations. For this to happen, the Israeli government must alter its positions. Only then will it be possible to talk about [Crown Prince] Abdullah's proposal."

Vedrine said: "When we criticize the Israeli government, it is never to criticize Israel as a whole. Behind France's activities in the Middle East over the last 20 years, lies one, sole aspiration - to reach peace. We absolutely understand the Israelis living in constant fear and fighting terrorism. We also understand those who voted for a politician who promised to solve the problem of a lack of security through forceful means. After all, many of them are Israelis who voted for [Ehud] Barak and in the next elections went for Sharon."

He hoped these voters would draw their own conclusions from the prime minister's huge failures and the breaching of his central promises to voters during the campaign. "As someone who knows the Israeli peace camp and who knows its weaknesses, I can say that I am anyway encouraged by its reawakening, and that some of its leaders wish to revive the diplomatic option," says Vedrine.

"When I see the reaction of some army men in Israel," he said, referring to the letter by officers refusing to serve in the territories, "I have nothing but commendation for Israeli democracy. There is a real debate going on and I hope that this debate will lead to change."

But Vedrine does not delude himself, being well aware of the "negative stereotype image," as he puts it, that Israel has of France.

This hurts him, but perhaps because of it, he allows himself to dream that "the French ideas" will provide the diplomatic horizon so desperately sought by those same, lost Israelis seeking a way out of the crisis.