US and France tangle at UN over Middle East

The rubble of a destroyed building seen after Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City on May 19, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - The conflict in the Middle East has stirred up a diplomatic stand-off at the United Nations between France and the United States, the first open tension between the two allies since US President Joe Biden took power.

Despite guaranteed opposition from the US, France proposed another draft UN Security Council resolution calling for the end of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as humanitarian access to the Gaza Strip.

According to the text obtained by AFP, the draft "demands an immediate cessation of hostilities" and calls for "intensification and acceleration of diplomatic efforts and support for a negotiated two-state solution".

The text has been circulated among the 15 Security Council members, who have until Thursday to weigh in, diplomats said. France has not given any indication on when a vote might be held.

The US has repeatedly vetoed similar resolutions in recent days, saying it is pursuing other avenues to solve the crisis.

France's latest proposal - announced in a statement from Paris on Tuesday (May 18) evening - quickly drew a firm response from the US, signalling it would wield its veto again if needed.

A US spokesman at the UN told Agence France-Presse that "we are focused on intensive diplomatic efforts under way to bring an end to the violence and that we will not support actions that we believe undermine efforts to de-escalate".

At the same time, Mr Biden announced on Wednesday that he had directly told Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he expects "significant de-escalation" - highlighting the contrasting approaches to the conflict.

The tactics raised suggestions it was an attempt to increase pressure on the US - or to underline that Biden was not meeting his pledge to have a more multilateral approach to international affairs than his predecessor Donald Trump.

"It's a bit strange considering the expectation that we all had for the Americans to return to multilateral diplomacy," one UN ambassador told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"We also thought that the United States would be keen to show the relevance of the Security Council in situations like this."

Another said that "we are just asking the US to support a statement by the Security Council that would pretty much say similar things which are being said bilaterally from Washington."

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament on Wednesday that "the American position will be quite decisive... It is true that we have seen the United States a little behind all this."

The palpable tension between France and the United States could leave traces and affect other issues.

The two countries have also disagreed this week on whether to give assistance to the counter terrorism force G5 Sahel.

France, which is heavily engaged politically and militarily in the region, has been campaigning for years for financial, logistical and operational support from the UN to the force's 5,000 under-equipped soldiers, provided by Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Trump's administration had categorically refused, and France had hoped for more support after Biden took office in January.

But the US again opposed the French stance, instead backing bilateral aid.

On the Middle East, the Security Council has been widely criticised for failing to yet adopt a declaration - with the United States, a staunch Israel ally, already rejecting three statement drafts proposed by China, Norway and Tunisia which called for an end to the fighting.

When France announced its draft proposal, the Elysee Palace said "the shooting must stop, the time has come for a ceasefire and the UN Security Council must take up the issue."

Geraldine Byrne Nason, UN ambassador for Ireland, a non-permanent member of the Council said "members have a collective responsibility for international peace and security.

"It is high time the Council steps up, breaks its silence and speaks out."

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