Can Sarkozy's Syria Ties Deliver a Mideast Truce?

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Bombs explode on Palestinian targets in the northern Gaza Strip as Israel continues to reinforce its troops amid talks of an internationally brokered cease-fire

Although France relinquished the rotating presidency of the European Union with the New Year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showing no signs of surrendering diplomatic center stage. As Israel's offensive on Gaza continues, Sarkozy announced on Thursday that he will visit both Israel and the Palestinian capital of Ramallah on Jan. 5 in an effort to broker a halt to the violence. So far, there are few indications that Sarkozy's signature take-charge moves will produce a quick result. But Sarkozy will be hoping that his controversial resumption of relations with Syria last year will translate into diplomatic leverage that can deliver Hamas cooperation in a new cease-fire. (Read about TIME Person of the Year runner-up Nicolas Sarkozy.)

"There is no humanitarian crisis, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday after an Elysée meeting with Sarkozy, who had reiterated his appeal that fighting stop immediately. "We affected most of the infrastructure of terrorism in Gaza Strip, and the question of whether it's enough or not will be according to our assessment on a daily basis." (See pictures of Israel's deadly assault on Gaza.)

Israel's deaf ear to Sarkozy's plea has raised the diplomatic stakes involved. Although the French President's trip to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon had been set long ago, stops in Ramallah and Jerusalem have been added to discuss "possible paths to peace" with various leaders. Elysée officials say Sarkozy won't be advancing any plans for resolving longer-term conflicts but rather seeking to use his influence and rare good relations with major players in the area to get the fighting to stop. "For now, all other questions are secondary to the issue of restoring peace," said Sarkozy spokesman Franck Louvrier. "It's an objective everyone says they want, so the focus will be finding a way to make it attainable."

Given the absence of the U.S.'s traditional lead role in the region until President-elect Barack Obama takes office, Sarkozy finds himself with a rare opportunity to wade into a Middle East crisis as the main diplomatic player. The Elysée hopes Sarkozy's visit to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can help reverse Abbas' increasing marginalization and make him an active partner in hammering out a truce. But the main event of Sarkozy's peacemaking foray will more likely be in Damascus, where he will meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday. Sarkozy's recent rapprochement with Syria, the regional player with the most influence over Hamas, means that the French President may have more diplomatic leverage than many of his Western counterparts.

Sarkozy ended Assad's long stint of international isolation by making Syria a founding member of the newly formed Mediterranean Union. Although Sarkozy faced heated criticism in July for embracing Assad — who is denounced by human rights activists and widely accused of orchestrating the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — the French President has defended the move as realpolitik designed to turn an enemy into an ally. That argument will now be put to the test.

Sarkozy is expected to press Assad to help find an end to the Gaza bloodshed — notably by pressuring Hamas to fulfill Israeli demands that it stop firing rockets. Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal seems willing to accept that condition in exchange for Israel's reopening border crossings that have economically asphyxiated Gaza — an issue that could eventually force a change in Egypt's closure of its frontier.

Sarkozy may have a short window for making progress. "Nicolas Sarkozy uses his energy and good faith to change the world — and that has had its chance as an alternative to the universally rejected Bush doctrine," wrote editorialist Yves Thréard in the French daily Le Figaro on Friday. "But Obama taking command will alter that equation, and risks crowding [Sarkozy] out."

See pictures of Israel's deadly assault on Gaza.

See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.