Chirac courts Arab support with tough line on Israel

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THE MOMENT he said it, a ripple of applause washed through the Lebanese in front of the old French high commissioner's residence. "Israel must withdraw from Lebanon in accordance with [UN] resolution 425 - and without conditions," President Jacques Chirac stated. "As for Syria, she has the right to see the Golan Heights restored to her. In return, Israel - like every state in the region - has the right to complete and total security."

What was odd about the French leader's remarks, in his third visit to Lebanon in two years, was that what might once have seemed bland now seems dramatic. It is a measure of how far American "peace-making" in the Middle East has collapsed that merely to restate the original principles of land- for-peace - the basis of the 1991 Madrid Middle East conference - should now seem so daring. Yet dramatic it was.

For here, as the Americans themselves are throwing up their hands in surrender before the Israeli Prime Minister's symbolic but carefully reported threat to "burn Washington" if he was forced to surrender more occupied land to the Palestinians, was a man getting angry with all the backsliding. Ignoring Israel's and America's attempts to make a piecemeal series of agreements, Mr Chirac stated that "peace could only be founded on a global accord".

There was more clapping across the lawns as the massive tricolour floated and snapped gently above the ornate former Turkish casino that is now the French embassy.

It was the sharpest retort yet to Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal to accept - with conditions - the UN security council resolution which calls for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal. Israel's decision to accept 425, but with conditions, was naturally hailed by the United States as a serious step. Why shouldn't the Lebanese disarm Israel's Hizbollah guerrilla enemies before they leave, they asked? The Lebanese, who suspect that once the Hizbollah are disarmed, the Israelis might stay, were told by the US ambassador to Beirut to take the proposal seriously.

Mr Chirac, while insisting he and Europe were supporting Washington, effectively dismissed the whole thing. The fact that Israel wanted to withdraw from Lebanon after 20 years was a "new element", he conceded, but there must be no conditions. "Israel must understand that its people cannot have security without peace". As his audience knew all too well, this was a direct attack on Mr Netanyahu, who claims to want security before peace.

The French president understood the nuances well. He referred to Syria's presence in Lebanon, but to Israel's "occupation" of southern Lebanon. He talked about his own proposal - with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - to relaunch the "peace process" with a new peace conference which would initially leave out the Israelis and Palestinians. In reality, French diplomats in Paris have been suggesting the European Union should end Israel's economic trade benefits with Europe because of what the French believe is Mr Netanyahu's desire to destroy the 1993 Oslo agreement with the PLO.

At a dinner after his speech, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, was blunter than Mr Chirac. He thanked France for rebuilding in Lebanon "what Israel has destroyed" and talked of his country's "privileged relations" with Syria. He did not say his country was also "privileged" to have 21,000 Syrian troops on its territory.

Now Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons, there were also warnings from Mr Hariri that Arab states might carry out similar tests - not least because Israel was a nuclear power. For a few seconds, fantasy took over the audience. Were the Lebanese going to go nuclear? Mercifully, Mr Hariri had other nations in mind.