Monday, November 18, 2013

Hollande, be a Champion of Morality

by Boaz Bismuth

The timing of French President François Hollande's visit could not have been better. About a week ago in Geneva, during the talks between the West and Iran, France derailed what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called "a bad deal." 

The warm reception afforded to Hollande this week is designed to show Israel's gratitude; but Jerusalem also hopes Hollande will be convinced to stay the course when the nuclear talks with Iran resume this week. 

A quick reminder: The talks are expected to resume on Wednesday; if you were to believe the sounds coming out of Washington and Moscow, there is a very good chance that this session would culminate with a signed agreement.

That is, unless the language of Molière once again carries the day. 

This week is going to be crucial. Torpedoing a deal would be no easy task because the Americans and the Russians want to have signing ceremony. In September, French jets were already in booster-ignition mode when the American-Russian dictate prevented an attack on Syria; as far as Russia and the U.S. are concerned, it is better to sign a deal with evil regimes than to flex your muscles. The talks will ultimately boil down to a clash between core values on the one hand, and political gain on the other hand. Netanyahu will ask Hollande to keep rooting for he moral high ground by being a champion of values. After all, France has copyrighted some of them -- "Liberté, égalité, fraternité." Israel and the Gulf States expect France to show some fraternité when the powers show up in Geneva. 

People may have high hopes for France, but Paris might have to fall in line with the zeitgeist. Russia and China have never been keen on imposing tougher sanctions on Iran. But the problem lies with the U.S., which has changed its position since the talks commenced a decade ago. The Europeans followed along (with the exception of France).

Washington caters to its own interests. (Just read Thomas Friedman's recent column in The New York Times.) The U.S. may pursue its own agenda; there is nothing inherently wrong with that -- except that it has repeatedly pleaded with Israel, over many years, to have faith in Uncle Sam. The New York Times, which has become one of the more vocal proponents of an agreement, believes it is "not the time to squeeze Iran.

Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the only thing left to do is come up with the exact language of the agreement; this suggests things are drawing to a close. Netanyahu will pay a visit to Moscow shortly after meeting Hollande, and he will make sure to stay in touch with the White House. 

For Netanyahu, the focus now is on damage control -- even if an agreement is reached, the persistence and steadfastness on the part of the French would, at the very least, make it into a somewhat better deal. Considering the current state of the talks, that would qualify as an achievement. 

The world is preoccupied with its own problems; as far as Israel is concerned, Iran is the main problem (and an existential threat), but world leaders have to attend to what is happening in their neck of the woods. Look at President Barack Obama, whose signature accomplishment -- the overhaul of the healthcare system -- turned into an embarrassing fiasco. 

Even Democratic lawmakers have come up against the implementation of "Obamacare." One of them, Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall (from West Virginia) said Obama's conduct on the matter deserved an F-. If there was someone who could promise Netanyahu that Iran's nuclear program would be as successful as Obamacare, he would have no problem sleeping at night. However, there is no guarantee that the two projects would share the same fate. 

Hollande's approval ratings are less than flattering. The latest Huffington Post-commissioned poll shows that support for the president dropped to 15 percent and that only 3% said his conduct as president was "very good." Such a nose dive is unprecedented. 

Perhaps Hollande should consider staying here a bit longer. His poll numbers in Israel will likely be through the roof in light of the French stance on Libya, Mali, Syria, and most importantly, because of his efforts in Geneva.

Boaz Bismuth


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