Chirac demands a state for Palestine

On West Bank they bestow hero status on French President, but the reaction at home is cooler
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The Independent Online
Advocating a Palestinian state as the best way to achieve peace in the Middle East, French President Jacques Chirac yesterday became the first foreign leader to address the Palestinian legislature. The French leader's visit to Israel and the autonomous Palestinian enclaves has become politically highly charged since his verbal confrontation with Israeli security men in the Old City of Jerusalem on Tuesday was shown on television screens across the Middle East.

Greeted by crowds shouting "Vive La France" in Ramallah, the autonomous Palestinian enclave 18 miles north of Jerusalem, Mr Chirac told the 88 member Palestinian Legislative Council: "A Palestinian state is not in any way a danger to the security of anyone. On the contrary, a Palestinian state and comprehensive and just peace guarantees security for all." Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and his government are wholly opposed to Palestinian statehood.

The French President called for a greater French and European role in the Middle East peace talks in which the United States has monopolised the role of mediator.

He said: "I salute the US role, but I see the peace process losing its breath because of the loss of trust. I see the European and French role in building more trust."

Mr Chirac criticised changes being made on the ground in Jerusalem, such as Israel's confiscation of land and the demolition of houses, as well as the economic closure imposed on the West Bank and Gaza.

All this will have delighted Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, though his strategy remains primarily to get as much American support as possible during the negotiations on the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron.

The Israeli daily Haaretz said yesterday that both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, convinced that President Bill Clinton will win re-election, want to impress him with their flexibility, but also "to appear to their public as diligent warriors battling over the last detail."

In the rest of the Middle East Mr Chirac's brief fracas in Jerusalem has won him widespread praise. The Syrian daily Tishreen said: "Because Chirac came to the region to urge Israel's rulers to adhere to the land- for-peace principle as the basis of the peace process, he was met with deliberate provocation by the Israeli leaders."

In Tehran, Ali Akbar Velyati, the Foreign Minister, said: "The presence of Paris in the region indicates that the European Union has come to its senses and wants to play a role independent of the US."

France has sought to limit US predominance in the Middle East twice already this year: by questioning the continuation of sanctions against Iraq; and by carrying out an independent diplomatic role during Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, the so-called Grapes of Wrath Operation, in April.

In neither case were French initiatives productive. In the two main conflicts in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli dispute and the cold war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, the US remains the only foreign power with real influence.

As Mr Chirac flew to Gaza the US and Israeli officials said that an agreement is imminent over the redeployment of the Israeli army in Hebron, the Palestinian city of 100,000 in which live some 400 Jewish settlers. Martin Indyk, the American ambassador, said yesterday: "We are relatively close to the end of these negotiations." Israel said that delay on an agreement is because Mr Arafat is stalling for time - possibly until after the US presidential election.

The changes in the Hebron agreement made at the insistence of Mr Netanyahu appear largely cosmetic. The main Palestinian concessions were made last year when Mr Arafat agreed, in effect, to partition the city with 20 per cent of it remaining under Israeli control to protect the settlers.

The main Israeli settlement at Kiryat Arba, with a population of 7,000, was never affected by the interim agreement signed by the last Labour government and now to be put into effect by Mr Netanyahu.

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