Sarko in Israel

THE high-flying Nicolas Sarkozy is on yet another whistle-stop tour of the Middle East. This time around, the French president is making friends and influencing people in Israel.

Predictably, Iran with its highly debated nuclear programme figured high in his talks with the Israeli leadership. Sarkozy said the usual stuff that the Israeli leaders would want to hear from a visiting Western leader. The French president reiterated that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable to France as well as European Union and that the EU states are as concerned over Teheran's nuclear ambitions as Israel has been.

Coming as this visit does soon after the latest UN and EU initiative on Iran and the talk of stiffer sanctions against Teheran, Sarkozy's tough posturing should surprise no one.

But what interests us is the French leader's tough talk on the continuing illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

While reiterating his commitment to the security and integrity of Israel, Sarkozy pointed out that an independent and viable Palestine was vital to the Jewish state.

And even a leader like Sarkozy, relatively new to the Middle East, does understand that there cannot be and will not be a Palestinian state if Israel continues to build settlements on what's left of the Palestinian land.

In a significant departure from his ally, President Bush, Sarkozy refused to acknowledge Jerusalem as the undivided and undisputed capital of Israel. Instead he said: "There can be no peace without recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of two states (Israel and Palestine) with guarantees of free access to the holy places of all the religions."

This rare courage on the part of a visiting Western leader to say it as it is in Jerusalem is refreshingly welcome.

Israel captured Jerusalem, especially East Jerusalem, in 1967, just as it occupied the vast swathes of Arab land, from the West Bank and Gaza to the Golan Heights (Syria) and Sinai (Egypt). East Jerusalem is not only home to Al Aqsa — one of Islam's three holiest — and holy places of Christianity and Judaism, it used to be the capital of Palestine. It's still seen as the capital of a future Palestinian state by the Palestinians.

Even as the Israelis pretend to talk peace with the Palestinians and the US and Western leaders continue to promise a "viable, peaceful and progressive Palestinian state", the illegal Jewish settlements continue to come up across what remains of the truncated Palestinian land.

This past week alone, Israel unveiled 40,000 Jewish homes in Jerusalem. So if the whole of Palestinian land is thus gobbled up by the illegal settlements, where's that promised Palestinian state going to come up? It's about time the US and EU demanded the answer to this question.

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