Abdennour Toumi: How would you describe the main directions of France’s Middle East policy?
Prof. Bertrand Badie: To understand France’s policy in the Middle East, we need to look to the past. When the Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1967, France, under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, had an Arab policy capable of transforming power. This policy has three axes that no longer exist today. The first axis is that, in the bipolar political system brought by the Cold War era, the Palestinians and Arabs should not have been left to the initiative of the USSR. For this reason, France did not follow a pro-Israel policy like other Western actors. The second axis, which took place in the first term of General De Gaulle’s presidency and during the period when Algeria was liberated from colonialism, was the idea of France opening a new page and engaging with southern countries. De Gaulle did not want to trap France between the east and west, and within the framework of this vision, he wanted to improve relations with countries in Africa, the Arab World, and Asia. The third idea that determined General De Gaulle’s policy was to support the Palestinian struggle for the right to self-determination. All this was remarkable for the time, and this policy of France was continued by the next two presidents, Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand, who were thought to be close to Israel.
Giscard continued the pro-Arab policy and supported the PLO. Mitterrand, who came to power afterward, also called for the rights of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to be respected in his speech at the Knesset during his visit to Israel and supported Yasser Arafat. The next French President, Jacques Chirac, also sided with the Palestinians. He reacted harshly to the Israeli police blocking his request to visit the Muslim quarter during a visit to Jerusalem in 1996.
However, after the US invasion of Iraq, there was a change in France’s Middle East and Arab policy. Taking the lead in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 dated September 2, 2004, and Chirac’s statements of support for Israel during Ariel Sharon’s visit to France in 2005 were the signals of the change in France’s Arab policy. With the pro-Atlantic Sarkozy coming to power and rejoining NATO, France’s Middle East policy completely changed and entered into a pro-Israeli route.
Likewise, François Hollande continued the policy under Sarkozy and went to Israel two months after Macron was elected in May 2017, making a very special gesture to Netanyahu and openly expressing his support for Israel. Although Macron underlined in his statement at the Vel’ d’Hiv meeting that they support the two-state solution and Jerusalem being the joint capital of Israel and Palestine, France’s Middle East and Arab policy has lost its credibility. France can no longer assume the role of a mediator trusted by everyone because it has lost its credibility with the transformation observed until now. Everyone is expressing the idea of a two-state solution, saying that they are committed, but on the other hand, the status quo is perpetuated, and tensions are tolerated. This indeed creates a negative image for French diplomacy. Above all, France’s unconvincing policy prevents the formation of a peace initiative in the name of Europe or on behalf of France. Previously, Europe could contribute to a solution in the Middle East with some initiatives such as the 1999 Berlin declaration and the 1990 Venice report, however, it now has lost this role.
Abdennour Toumi: Ten years after the first wave of the Arab uprisings, how do you assess the sociological impact of these Arab uprisings on the geopolitical imperatives of the region?
Prof. Bertrand Badie: First, we must ask the important question: why? Because all plans for the solution of the Palestinian problem were blocked by the diplomatic initiatives of the governments. There is one thing that everyone agrees on, which is everyone agrees that there is a clear or covert solution to the Palestinian issue on the table. The fact is that EU countries, the US, and even Russia and China, which had fluctuating relations with Israel during the Soviet era, accept the solution plan. Although China is pro-Palestinian, it tries not to get too involved in its interests in the Middle East and does not take the initiative. Likewise, the reality is that the totalitarian Arab regimes also knew the solution and accepted it. However, when we look at the diplomatic positions of the states, we see that they are facing a general obstacle towards a solution. This led to the emergence of social anger and the fall of the regimes.
However, the impact of social events on political life and the increase in social movements did not start with the Arab Spring. This situation is actually a result of the crisis in the international system. When we look before the Arab Spring, which started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in 2011, there were riots in many parts of the world. For example, in South America, there were many protests and riots in Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. In the same way, there were riots and protest demonstrations even in Europe, like those in Spain before the Arab Spring; the Occupy Wall Street protests; and the Yellow Vest movement in France, in recent years. All of this is a new style in international politics, where people are now revealing their social anger and are forced to react due to the problems created by the crisis. For example, as we have seen in the Middle East for two or three weeks, none of the Palestinian youth accept any negotiation attempt and compromise anymore. Seeing that no real solution has been reached for 20-25 years since the Oslo Agreement and that there is no intention of a solution, Palestinian youth no longer want any compromise. In their eyes, politics is seen as a summary of ineffectiveness, failure and incompetence. It no longer has any credibility. They feel compelled to react now, as any attempt will fail in their eyes. There is no reconciliation they dream of, because, as we saw in the normalization process, Morocco, like Egypt and Jordan, has also normalized with Israel, and Palestinian youth no longer believe in Arab solidarity, which we can see in the protests.
Abdennour Toumi: A third Al-Aqsa Intifada started about ten days ago in Jerusalem, which then spread to Gaza and the West Bank. What do you think about this dynamic in the peace and security equation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Prof. Bertrand Badie: We must first question whether there was an Intifada. If indeed there was a third Intifada, it would have meant a major failure for Benjamin Netanyahu above all else. But I believe that this ‘dynamic’ can renew the status quo. Because this status quo, which is not negotiated and the occupation continues step by step, strengthens colonization. This process did not start with Netanyahu, and it has existed since the assassination of Izak Rabin in 1995. This process is the idea of building a ‘Greater Israel’ by gradually occupying the settlements with Israeli settlers, based on the status of the occupied territories. This status quo is given a blind eye by Paris and, as we have seen with the normalization processes, is also accepted or tolerated by Arab administrations.
If the current Intifada were to call this into question, it would cause the political line we’ve been talking about to fail, not consolidate the majority of the electorate behind Netanyahu or anyone else. The latter should have been a failure for the United States. The United States has taken no action other than the one in the year 2016, when it evoked UN Security Council Resolution 2334, calling on Israel to “immediately and completely cease settlement activities against international law,” despite the reluctance of Barack Obama. All US presidents supported this political line in Israel. If we could talk about the Intifada, thousands of Palestinians should be able to change the policy of the US. Third, if there had been an intifada, recent developments should have focused the international community on the Middle East in its efforts to find a solution. In accordance with UN Resolutions 242 and 338 in 1967, it should have been possible to imagine a situation dependent on a dual-state solution. These are very sensitively written difficult decisions about what an occupied territory should be.
Another aspect of the matter is that there is no negotiation partner among the Palestinians. We can no longer talk about a Palestinian authority. They could not hold elections last year, and they could not come to an agreement. It is understood that Hamas also does not intend to be a negotiator. In short, it is very difficult for a change and dynamic to occur unless there is a social negotiation since there is no sensitivity in the international public opinion on the Palestinian issue. Because there is no social negotiation.
Abdennour Toumi: After the Oslo Agreement, there was some hope for a resolution in 1993. What is left of this agreement, and is this the end of the PLO and the Palestinian rule?
Prof. Bertrand Badie: We have to accept that the Oslo Agreement is dead. As it can be seen, the Palestinian administration, which is the representative of the status that creates the legal and political order, no longer has any activity. With the Oslo Agreement, an institutional model was aimed to be built within the framework of negotiation, but neither the commitment to the institutional model nor the implementation of this model was realized. The PLO was determined not to recognize the existence of Israel and was fighting for it, and as a result of this agreement, it lost its legitimacy in a sense by leaving its reason for existence aside. When we look at history, we see that all peace agreements functionally provide something for both sides, I think there is a tendency in the Oslo Accords to benefit the enemy politically and legally. The concessions made by the PLO did not help the Palestinians gain some rights or protect their rights. When we look today, we see that Israel has unacceptably seized Palestinian settlements. Although the Palestinian Authority is recognized by the international community, it does not have any authority and effectiveness, and it seems very difficult to rebuild the representation of the Palestinian people.
Abdennour Toumi: What role do you think the Joe Biden administration will play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Prof. Bertrand Badie: I see it as an illusion to expect something from Biden after Trump. As you know, Biden was a part of the Obama administration, and the Obama era was a period when serious support was given to Israel and Biden already expresses that he is pro-Israel at every opportunity. The Biden administration has done nothing about Trump’s legacy, such as the Abraham Accords, has made statements defending and supporting Israel in recent events, has not taken any action against Israel’s oppression and attacks, and has made it inoperable by preventing the UN Security Council. In fact, imagine a situation where the location of the Associated Press (AP), a US media organization, was bombed by Israel in Gaza, but the Biden administration did not react to it. Can you imagine Iran, Syria, or North Korea doing the same thing? The United States would certainly have responded violently in that case. Yes, there was Al Jazeera in that building, but the AP, a US media organ, was attacked, and the Biden administration did not give any response. Clearly, Biden is on Israel’s side. However, the Biden administration wants to re-sign a nuclear deal with Iran and is taking steps for it. Netanyahu does not want this to happen, and for this, he tries to prevent the US-Iran nuclear deal by showing the missiles of Hamas, which he triggered with his attacks on Gaza. But of course, Biden wants to get this deal, and he cannot do it without getting Israel to accept it. The fact that US presidents can do anything without convincing Netanyahu means a transformation in the US’ Palestine policy, as we have seen Israel driving the diplomacy of the US. In short, the Biden administration cannot stop Israel and move the Palestinian crisis to a new stage.
Abdennour Toumi: How do you interpret Israel’s policy in Palestine, which is often described as apartheid? The first to put forward this definition was US President Jimmy Carter with his book “Palestinian Peace, Not Apartheid” published in 2006.
Prof. Bertrand Badie: Yes, you are right. Unfortunately, his thesis is true. I wish this thesis, defended by Jimmy Carter, had been put forward after his Presidency, because at the end of the 70s, Israel annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Maybe if the US government had prevented this at that time, we would not have been dealing with today’s problems. But Jimmy Carter’s definition of the apartheid regime is very important. He accused the racist apartheid regime by stating that he was oppressing the minority, which is very important indeed. There is a situation that we can describe as the emergence of the facts, because it is a known fact that Israel puts pressure on the Palestinians through behavioral and institutional practices. This is a very serious break because it means fundamentally questioning the Israeli administration, but when this Human Rights Watch report was published, no one reacted to it and ignored it. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that they were in solidarity with Israel after the report was published. Whereas, in Gaza and Palestine, Israel killed hundreds of people, about 60 of whom were children, injured thousands, and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Why isn’t there a philosophical, intellectual reflex to this, or why has the international community accepted it? Look, for example, hundreds of African immigrants are dying in the Mediterranean, why is no one reacting to this? Our modern diplomacy is now based on the assumption of inequality. We need to pay attention to the rise of racism in global diplomacy.
Abdennour Toumi: Do you think we are facing a South African scenario? Can we draw a parallel between the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the tragic events of Soweto in 1976?
Prof. Bertrand Badie: First of all, we have to be careful when comparing historical events, but when we evaluate the events in South Africa, we should say that it is basically the same as the Palestine issue. For example, the 2018 law amendment that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state is actually an indicator of its similarity with the minority colonial regime in South Africa. In both cases, it is seen that a certain majority in society is excluded and marginalized. Since the concept of citizenship in Israel is redefined through Jewish identity instead of Arab-Israeli identity, it turns into an apartheid regime and the pressures it exerts on Palestinian Arabs are obvious. However, the Palestinian uprising was so weak and unsuccessful that Nelson Mandela was engaged in an all-out struggle against colonialism in South Africa.
Abdennour Toumi: I would like to draw attention to the lack of leadership of Arab countries in the region. Is this the end of Arab leadership in the region? We know that the region is in a non-Arab triangle (Ankara, Tehran, Tel Aviv). What role do you think Tehran and Ankara can play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Prof. Bertrand Badie: The Arab world is far from pan-Arabism, which has long been a unifying force in the Arab world, symbolized by Nasser. Egypt has lost its former position, and Saudi Arabia is ultra-conservative and geographically not the center of the region. In addition, the Arab leadership aimed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lacks both capacity and charisma. Also, the two capitals of this unity, Damascus and Baghdad, are historically unstable. Iraq was destroyed by the invasion of the US and Syria by the civil war that started after the Arab Spring. He lost his leadership capacity. There are two countries in the region that have the capacity for Arab leadership: Turkey and Iran, but they are not Arab either. These two actors have a serious capacity as a regional power. Iran can influence Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, even Yemen, and undoubtedly the Gulf with its proxies or other means. Likewise, Turkey plays a role as an important actor in Syria, Iraq, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Libya. Meanwhile, Israel cannot penetrate the Arab world like these two actors. On the other hand, another actor that draws attention to Middle Eastern crises is Putin’s Russia. Under the leadership of Putin, Russia has seriously increased its influence in the region, especially with the Syrian Civil War. What is interesting is that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf countries have important relations with the US, they have problems with Turkey and Iran. Amid these dynamics, we can observe that Russia has been able to establish good relations with all these countries, which is a really remarkable point.