If the tragic axiom of Middle East peacemaking is that the Israelis and Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, there is now a new corollary: French President Nicolas Sarkozy never misses an opportunity to present himself as the opportunity.
Last week, as Israeli tanks rolled through Gaza and the civilian death toll mounted into the hundreds, most Western leaders fell into paroxysms of procrastination. U.S. President George W. Bush, as usual, backed Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks, but offered no plausible plan to end the carnage. President-elect Barack Obama, meanwhile, temporized, keeping the world in suspense about his plans and even his opinions. A delegation representing the European Union, which is now under the rotating presidency of the Czechs, seemed to be wandering in the wilderness. But "Super Sarko" rushed in where other leaders feared to tread, and if he didn't exactly negotiate an end to the fighting, he managed at least to put a few brief lulls in place and give Egyptian truce plans a nudge forward. At week's end, with prodding from France and an abstention by the United States, the U.N. Security Council called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire—but the fighting continued.
Other peace envoys, speaking privately, are skeptical about Sarkozy's ability, and indeed his interest, in laying the groundwork for lasting results. "Sarkozy, he's a short-term man," said one of the senior European diplomats who watched him in action. "In medium and long-term results, he's not much interested. He wants immediate results, which are, of course, media results." But under the circumstances, even Sarkozy's critics concede the French president was the most effective actor on the scene. The EU's point man on foreign policy, Javier Solana, broke away from the EU delegation and joined Sarkozy's troupe hours after the French team landed because that's where the action was.
When Sarkozy jetted back to Paris after two days on the ground, others set about trying to build on whatever momentum existed. In addition to Cairo, which has lost the trust of Hamas, Ankara may act as an intermediary. The outlines of the plan, according to diplomats, would include better control of the Gaza-Egypt border, not only to stop the smuggling of rockets and arms, but to facilitate freer movement of people and trade. European troops might get that job. But "the Hamas people want a little bit of legitimacy out of all this, too," says one envoy familiar with the talks. "Who could slightly open that door?" Not Sarkozy, not the Europeans, certainly not the Egyptians, but, yes, "Obama." Another corollary: Sarkozy may help create opportunities, but if there's going to be real change, the Americans have to seize them.