French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie arrived in Israel for her first visit since taking over from Bernard Kouchner in November, with talks in Jerusalem expected to deal not only with the Palestinians, but also the situation in Tunisia and Lebanon.
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Her visit comes fast on the heels of criticism she has come under for offering to help Tunisia’s ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali just days before his ouster. Three days before Ben Ali fled Tunisia, as riots took place throughout the country, Alliot-Marie offered to share French police expertise in “settling security situations of this type.”
She was asked about the matter in Paris on Tuesday, at the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, and was quoted as saying, “Let’s be honest: We were all – politicians, diplomats and researchers, journalists – surprised by the Jasmine Revolution.” She also said her proposal of cooperation had been “distorted” by critics.
France, like other Western governments, overlooked Ben Ali’s human rights record, focusing instead on his silencing of the Islamists inside Tunisia and on the country’s relatively strong economic record.
One of Alliot-Marie’s central reasons for coming to Israel and the Palestinian Authority at this time, according to a statement issued by the French Embassy, was to see how France and the EU, in coordination with the US, could contribute to direct Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, which “are the only way to reach a sustainable solution to the crisis.”
The statement said she would emphasize the need for both sides to refrain from “provocative actions.”
Israeli officials said Alliot- Marie’s style was very different from the passionate, often unpredictable style of Kouchner, her more flamboyant predecessor.
According to the French Embassy statement, she will also travel to Gaza, “which is an integral part of the Palestinian Authority, and which is at the center of our concerns and our cooperation efforts.”
Alliot-Marie, according to the statement, will emphasize in Gaza France’s support for the civilian population, and visit a French cultural center as well as a hospital recently refurbished with French money.
She will also visit Sderot and meet with the parents of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, who has dual Israeli-French citizenship.
She will meet separately on Thursday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
She is also scheduled to meet with the PA leadership in Ramallah during her two-day visit.
From Israel she will travel to Egypt and then to Jordan, where her visit will follow a stop there on Wednesday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Medvedev, before a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Wednesday, said that Moscow would do its utmost to ensure peace in the region.
“I told my Palestinian friends that the ultimate goal is the establishment of a unified, sovereign and modern Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital,” Medvedev was quoted as saying by the Jordanian Petra news agency.
The Russian president was dipped in the Jordan River in commemoration of Jesus’s baptism.
RIA Novosti and ITAR-Tass said Medvedev was dunked three times – in line with Christian Orthodox tradition – at a site on the river’s east bank where Jesus is said to have been baptized by John the Baptist.
Two Jordanian officials said Wednesday’s event was closed to the media at the request of Russian officials, who insisted the president wanted privacy.
Earlier, an official had said Medvedev would not take a dip, but instead have a priest splash him with river water in a symbolic commemoration of the baptism.
In another development, Netanyahu’s office fired back at Time magazine for a story in last week’s issue under the headline “Israel’s rightward lurch scares some conservatives.”
Ron Dermer, a senior adviser to the prime minister, wrote a rebuttal to that article in which the author, Karl Vick, characterized Israel as full of “self-righteous indignation” and having a public “whose default assumption is that Israel is always the injured party.”
In a letter to the magazine’s managing director Richard Stengel, Dermer wrote, “I hope that you will agree that the article’s obvious bias and numerous distortions are not worthy of the standards of your prestigious magazine.”
The rebuttal appears on Time’s website, and – according to the Prime Minister’s Office – will appear in the upcoming print edition.
A source in Netanyahu’s office said the decision to respond to the piece was made because the story was considered “particularly egregious, with unfounded attacks on Israel and the prime minister.”
Dermer, on a point-by-point basis, dissected the story, pointing out that what Vick characterized as examples of the country’s slide to fascism were actually commonplace in most democratic countries, including the US.
For instance, the proposal that naturalized citizens pledge an oath to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, Dermer wrote, is no different than the demand in the US that naturalized citizens swear an oath to the US Constitution and to “defend the country against enemies, foreign and domestic.”
As to the issue of questioning the legitimacy of foreign government funding of Israeli NGOs, Dermer said that had Vick mentioned America’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), he would have presented “a more balanced picture.”
“FARA requires that any organization engaged in lobbying in the US that receives money from foreign individuals, let alone foreign governments, must among other things register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice and permit the attorney- general to inspect all of its activities,” Dermer wrote.
“Israel has upheld its democratic values despite being threatened like no country on earth,” he wrote. “In defending itself against wars of aggression, unparalleled terror campaigns and continuous promises to annihilate it, Israel has a track record on the protection of rights that would compare favorably to the record of any democracy, much less democracies under threat.”
In conclusion, Dermer wrote that “no matter how biased and unbalanced your correspondents’ coverage of Israel, they will always be free here to write whatever they want. Of course, Time is also free not to print it.”AP contributed to this story.