President François Hollande flew into Israel Sunday at a time when France’s
foreign policy – particularly its tough stand on Iran – has earned Paris a
greater degree of respect in Jerusalem than it has enjoyed in years.
respect was on display at Ben-Gurion Airport, where the pomp, ceremony and
warmth that greeted Hollande rivaled only that displayed for US President Barack
Obama when he arrived for a similar three day visit in March.
gave back the warmth.
“I will always remain a friend of Israel,” he said
in Hebrew at the end of a brief address that he delivered upon landing Sunday
afternoon, sounding almost Obamaesque.
The US president, during his visit
here, used strategically placed Hebrew phrases to try and win over the Israeli
But it was not the Hebrew phrase that Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu wanted to hear from Hollande. He wanted to hear what Hollande
articulated: that France will not surrender to nuclear proliferation and that
Paris will stand by its demands – and continue with sanctions – until Iran gives
up on a nuclear weapon.
Iran, he said, “is a threat to Israel, to the
region, and to the whole world.”
Hollande arrived in Israel as the head
of a massive delegation, including seven ministers and nearly 200 businessmen,
aides and journalists, just three days before the P5+1 group of world powers –
of which France is a member – is set to meet again in Geneva with Iranian
While circumstances have put Israel and France firmly on the
same page vis-à-vis Iran, there are still gaping differences when it comes to
the Palestinian issue. But here Hollande differed from former French president
Nicolas Sarkozy, during his speech upon arrival for his first visit in 2008,
barely mentioning the issue in his initial remarks.
with saying he pinned a great deal of hope on the negotiations.
need courage,” he said. “But you have courage.”
His words on Monday in
Ramallah are likely to be less pleasing on this matter to Israeli
But on Sunday, at the airport, it was all warmth.
“I came to
deliver a message of support of France, based on our long history, a history of
joint fate, but also of suffering, pain and tragedy,” he said.
no hint in his words of a French foreign policy that for years tilted toward the
Arabs, or of French arms embargoes, or of former French president Jacques
Chirac’s tirades in the Old City against Israeli security guards or of Sarkozy
telling Obama that Netanyahu was a liar.
Netanyahu welcomed Hollande by
saying that Zionism was influenced a great deal by the lofty ideals of the
French Revolution: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (“liberty, equality,
He said that Zionism had taken additional elements from the
French Revolution: the belief in progress, human rights and the “sovereignty of
the people, not of the ruler.”
Israel was the only state in the region
that sanctified those values, he said, adding that Israeli-French ties are
long-standing and deeply rooted.
Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres
highlighted the assistance that France gave Israel in the early years of
statehood: letting illegal immigrants use French ports to sail for Israel and
giving critical aid in the establishment of the country’s defense industry – a
role in which Peres played a pivotal part.
“We appreciate France’s
decisive contribution to our security during the first and fateful years of our
state,” Netanyahu said. “We are preserving and developing those
France, Netanyahu said, understands very well the dangers of
extremist factions who do not shudder from violence and terrorism to achieve
their aims. He praised Hollande for the “courageous decision” to fight Islamic
radical terrorists in Mali, and for the tough stance that Paris has taken toward
Syria and Iran’s continued attempts to get nuclear arms.
that when he went with Hollande to Toulouse last year after the terrorist attack
there, and saw his unwavering stand against anti-Semitism, as well as his warm
relations with the French Jewish community, “I saw in front of me a leader with
principles and deep humanity.”
Those are words that must be music to
Hollande’s ears, especially at a time when his poll numbers in France are the
lowest they have been for any French president since 1958. Praise and warmth
like this, ironically, is something he is much more likely to hear and feel in
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem than in Paris and Lyon.