In the name of diplomacy, leaders sometimes play little tricks. That's what French President Nicolas Sarkozy did as he hosted the extravagant Mediterranean Union's inaugural summit in Paris on Bastille Day weekend. After offering a glowing report on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he simultaneously shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as cameras snapped away. Then he slyly drew his own hands together, and theirs with his—leading to a richly symbolic three-way handshake. Abbas smiled discretely, and Olmert—who in other circumstances might have scowled at the move—broke into a broad, toothy grin.
The Israeli prime minister hasn't had much to smile about lately. He's that rare elected leader with approval ratings lower than U.S. President George W. Bush, and he's facing rising calls to resign due to a mounting corruption probe. But Olmert has found a hand to lift him up in a very unlikely place: Paris. Since taking office, Sarkozy has supported a flurry of diplomatic activity on issues close to Israel's heart: Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah completed last week, getting Syria to recognize Lebanon's sovereignty and working with Washington to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Under President Sarkozy, Olmert told French radio in May, the state of French-Israeli relations has been transformed. "This is not only a honeymoon," he gushed, "it is a love story."
That's excessive, perhaps. But the changes have been dramatic. Until very recently, France and Israel have had bitterly difficult relations. The last French president, Jacques Chirac, and his predecessor, François Mitterrand, emphasized la politique arabe, in which they embraced Arab leaders of nearly all stripes while often keeping Israel at arm's length. (Despite the rhetoric, actual French policies were always far more in line with Israel's, but top politicians rarely admitted it.) But Sarkozy has changed all that by very publicly embracing the Jewish state. He takes every opportunity to reassure Israel, whether on Iran's nuclear ambitions or by calling talk of a politique arabe "nonsense," as he did in his 2006 political book "Testimony." Last month Sarkozy, whose maternal grandfather was Jewish, lauded the universal values of Judaism in a speech before the Israeli Knesset. It was only the second time a French president had appeared before the Israeli Parliament and was the first time in more than a quarter century. Sarkozy used the occasion to tell Israel: "The French people will always be [there] when your existence is threatened."
Sarkozy's supportive rhetoric has also allowed him to deliver messages to Jerusalem that its leaders may not want to hear. On his recent visit, he encouraged Israel to immediately "take risks for peace" and to stop colonizing Palestinian lands, which he called the "principal obstacle to peace." He said that the capital of a viable Palestinian state should be located, alongside Israel's, in Jerusalem. At the same time, Sarkozy is working hard to lure Israel back to the negotiating table, while doing the same with the Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria and others. Over the past year, that has involved some controversial steps. The president gave Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi a gaudy red-carpet welcome in Paris in December, and Sarkozy gave Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad a front-row seat for the Bastille Day parade (sparking discontent in the French military, where many link Syria to the deaths of 58 French U.N. parachutists in Beirut in 1983).
In many ways, Sarkozy's embrace of Assad was especially telling. By the end of Chirac's presidency, Middle East policy often seemed personal, as when France leaned hard on Syria for justice following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Chirac friend. Sarkozy has not let the incomplete international investigation into that bombing deter him or his strategy of talking to almost anyone if he thinks it might be constructive. At the recent summit, Sarkozy lauded Arab leaders for merely sitting alongside Israel. He physically embraced Syria's leader, and gleefully announced that Assad and his Lebanese counterpart had agreed to open embassies in each other's countries for the first time. "Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to benefit from the considerable soft power of France in the Middle East, where his country has a good reputation," says Karim Bitar, a Paris-based expert on French relations with the Arab world. "And in Israel, Sarkozy is perceived as a good friend."
This diplomacy is in part linked to Sarkozy's history as a business lawyer. Looking at the intractable problems of the Middle East, he's decided to take on the role of a supportive arbitrator, trying to create enough basic trust that the parties can negotiate in good faith. It's also a smart tactical move. Luring Syria back toward dialogue could open a communication channel with Iran, Syria's closest ally—or if that doesn't work, could help the West isolate Tehran by peeling away one of the regime's few friends. French efforts to promote the stabilization of Lebanon follow a similar path, calming an area where Iran's Hizbullah allies have gained additional levers of power in the new power-sharing agreement.
It may be a canny approach, but it's also a risky one. "Sarkozy in Israel acted as an intermediary who could be heard by both sides, and he is more listened to in Israel than his predecessors," says Gilles Kepel, a Middle East scholar at Sciences Po in Paris and the author of "The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West." "But the great difficulty is to not lose his capital in Arab countries. It is a balancing act that is very complex. It is a gamble."
Indeed, Chirac also tried hard to improve diplomacy with Syria before concluding it would lead nowhere. But Sarkozy is aiming higher and at multiple targets, and he is also armed with firmer support from Israel. Moreover, he has timing on his side. Though he is unpopular at home, due largely to economic concerns, he is benefiting from the United States' low standing in the Middle East, where Washington's credibility has been damaged by the war in Iraq and President Bush's lame-duck status. Sarkozy is trying to step into that breach. "Europe can't fill the U.S.'s space in the region, but no one has a monopoly of action," says Pascale Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "In our own way, we must weigh in."
The risk, of course, is that Sarkozy will fail to follow up on last week's meeting, leaving the impression that it was just another photo op and a lost opportunity. But if he manages to make even incremental progress, he may find himself lauded by all sides—a nimble trick indeed.