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OPINION: Macron is tight-rope walking over an abyss in an attempt to prevent Middle East war

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron is tight-rope walking over an abyss in an attempt to prevent Middle East war
French President Emmanuel Macron at Cairo airport after his two-day Middle East visit. Photo by Christophe Ena / POOL / AFP

Emmanuel Macron's diplomatic mission to the Middle East may have been clumsily-worded, but he is trying to prevent the world from sleepwalking into war, writes John Lichfield.


In his two-day mission to the Middle East this week, Emmanuel Macron attempted to walk a tight-rope over an abyss. Le Monde said that he attempted to perform a diplomatic version of 'the splits'.

In Jerusalem, he said that France supported a “merciless” destruction of Hamas – within the “rules” of international law.

In Cairo, he became the first Western leader to warn Israel publicly against a no-holds-barred, ground invasion of Gaza.

Such an operation would be a “mistake”, he said, offering no long-term protection for Israel and endangering thousands of civilian lives.


Overall, he tried to balance support for Israel’s grief and fury over the atrocities of 7/10 with an appeal for a “decisive” relaunch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Standing beside Benyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, Macron made a proposal which surprised Israel, many foreign capitals – and even, it is reported, the French foreign ministry

He suggested that Western governments and “moderate” Muslim states, should extend their successful 60-nation alliance against the jihadism of Islamic State (or ISIS or Daech) to a “fight against” Hamas.

In Cairo on Wednesday, he announced that a French naval hospital ship would set sail from Toulon to provide off-shore medical facilities for Gaza civilians.

“Nothing justifies terrorist violence,” he had said in Amman on Tuesday. “But all civilian lives have the same value. A Palestinian civilian life is worth the same as a French civilian life or an Israeli civilian life.”

That is a statement of the obvious but it amounts to a direct challenge to the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and some of his maximalist cheerleaders in the West.

Can this gigantic version of Macronist centrism – on the one hand, on the other hand – possibly succeed? What influence does France have in the Middle East anyway?

It has a little. Not much. Macron’s diplomatic track record is not perfect. But he is right to try to restrain what is becoming a dangerous spiral of events. 

Fears are growing in France – and not just in France – that the Israel-Hamas conflict could unleash a regional, and maybe even global, war.

Even if wider military confrontation can be avoided, the conflict could have calamitous consequences in France which has the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe

Dangerous lines are already being drawn. Turkey, which has had friendly relations with Israel for years, this week described Hamas as a “liberation movement”.


Israel has called for the resignation of the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres because he made a statement with which many peace-minded Israelis would agree.

Guterres condemned the Hamas civilian massacres of 10/7 but said they were partly  explained – “but not justified” – by “56 years of stifling occupation” of the West Bank and the encroachment of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land.

Israel accused him of “justification of terrorism”.

Macron believes that some form of urgent intervention is now needed to prevent an explosive confrontation between Muslim nations and Israel/the West.

On Tuesday, he suggested a coalition of Western governments and “moderate” Muslim states to “fight against” Hamas.

This was clumsily formulated and had to be rapidly reformulated as an “initiative for peace”. Elysée Palace officials say Macron’s aim was to assure the Israelis that they are  not alone but apply global brakes to Israel’s visceral response to the most calamitous day in its 76-year history.

He also hoped to deflect western-aligned Middle Eastern states, from Turkey to Egypt to Qatar to Saudi Arabia, from supporting - if not actually joining -  Hamas and Iran in a holy war with Israel.


Was Macron suggesting that French ground and air forces should join the Israeli military in the fight against Hamas, just as French soldiers and airmen had waged war on ISIS?

No, he was not. Macron had tripped once again over what he failed to say rather than what he did say.

Such a “coalition” or “initiative” would, he explained later, “target terrorists by sharing intelligence, identifying senior figures and imposing the necessary sanctions, without ever endangering civilian populations”.

On the surface, even that idea is a non-starter.

‘Moderate' Islamic states felt threatened by the emergence of ISIS but do not feel threatened by Hamas. They see it as an extremist, nationalist movement created, in part, by the intransigence of successive Netanyahu-led Israeli governments.

They were happy to collaborate with the West in fighting ISIS but they fear the impact on their own public opinions if they are seen to join the West - and Israel - in even a loose coalition against Hamas.

A daft idea, then? Not entirely. The US government was informed of Macron’s idea in advance. It was discussed in a five way call between the French, US, British, German and Italian leaders a few days ago.

It may eventually emerge in a different form. It may already be too late.

Finding the right language, or the right proposals, to restrain the Israelis and the Muslim states may already be near impossible.

The lines that are being drawn but are not yet battle lines.

We may be somewhere between June 28th 1914 (the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo) and August 1st-3rd 1914 when Germany declared war on Russia and then France.

Macron’s two-day Middle East trip can be criticised as belated or muddled. He is, at least, looking for some kind of balanced formula of actions and words that can stop the world from sleep-walking into war.


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