Chirac tour aims to win Middle East role

France's inveterate diplomatic traveller, President Jacques Chirac, sets out today on a week-long mission to try to ensure a place for France at the top table of Middle East diplomacy. It is his second trip to the region since he took office, and one of the longest foreign tours he has undertaken. It is also seen by French diplomats as one of the most difficult.

The complexities of the tour, which will take him from Syria to Egypt, via Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Leb-anon, were underlined less than 48 hours before he set off by an announcement that the foreign minister, Herve de Charette, would not be accompanying him on the Israeli leg of the journey. Israel had objected to plans for him to visit Orient House, the Palestinian representation, in East Jerusalem.

It is a policy agreed in the European Union that EU foreign ministers visiting Israeli officials in Jerusalem should also visit Orient House - signifying that they regard the question of jurisdiction in Jerusalem as open. This Israel does not accept. Mr Chirac will now be accompanied to Jerusalem by Herve Gaymard, the health minister, who will go to Orient House.

France also appears to have made some late modifications to its ambitions for Mr Chirac's tour, which was planned several months ago, as a highlight of his diary. Initially, it seems, there were hopes for some sort of diplomatic coup that could break the current Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. The French news agency, AFP, which receives separate, official, briefings on such matters, reported earlier this week, for instance, that France intended to "play a role in relaunching the peace-process, despite the reservations of the Americans and Israelis".

The following day, the formulation was that France intended to try to "support" the peace process. And by yesterday it seemed that any thoughts of influencing the peace process at all were being buried. In the pre- visit briefing, the Elysee spokesman said that Mr Chirac would go "not as mediator, but with a message of peace" - the inference being that it might not be reciprocated.

As if to underline this, the Israeli foreign minister, David Levy, was quoted in several French reports as saying "the participation of a third partner [in the peace process] can only complicate things". During a visit to Paris last month, he made no secret of his view that French policy favoured the Arabs.

Officials in France's Gaullist administration deny this. They do, however, believe France's historical ties with the Arab world give it an advantage in Middle Eastern diplomacy that has not been sufficiently exploited. They blame France's former president, Francois Mitterrand, for undermining this by leaning towards Israel.

Mr Chirac has tried hard to restore France's special position in the Arab world. He has personally visited Lebanon, Egypt and the Gulf, and recently dissociated France from the US bombing of Iraq. The public dispute with Israel over Mr de Charette's visit to Jerusalem will hardly harm him in Arab eyes.

But Mr Chirac has also tried to use this "special relationship" with the Arabs to establish a French role in the Middle East peace process. During the last but one Israeli-Arab crisis, Mr Chirac annoyed the Americans by dispatching Mr de Charette to track the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, around the Middle East, and was delighted when he returned with a place for France at the ensuing talks.

That achievement, however, was almost completely undone by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in April, the subsequent stalling of the peace process and the restoration of the US monopoly on what remained of it.

One point Mr Chirac intends to make during his tour, is that Europe should have a seat at the diplomatic table, if only because it is footing 80 per cent of the bill for Palestinian aid. Mr Chirac's apparent belief that it is he that who should do the representing, however, may not go down well in London and Bonn, which both support the US role, or in Dublin, which holds the EU presidency. Irish officials said yesterday that Mr Chirac's trip was "purely bilateral". US officials were guarded, saying Mr Chirac's trip had been planned for a long time and that "everyone's suggestions" on the Middle East were "welcome".

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