The Foreign Ministry started looking to its friends in Europe this week to push back against a Swedish proposal on the Middle East that essentially calls for the recognition of east Jerusalem as the capital of "Palestine," even before negotiations begin. It's the Israeli diplomatic nightmare: outside actors imposing a settlement that pretty much adopts the Palestinian position, while giving short shrift to Israeli concerns.
And in that search for friends, for supporters, eyes were cast toward France, which, since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president in 2007, has dramatically changed its tone toward Israel.
France! Who would have thought just a few years back that Israel, when in a jam, would turn to France for succor?
France, whose former president Jacques Chirac famously berated and shouted at Israeli security guards protecting him in Jerusalem's Old City in 1996. France, whose ambassador to England called Israel "that shitty little country" at a cocktail party in London in 2001. France, which welcomed an ailing Yasser Arafat in 2004, where he died in a military hospital.
But that was then. The times have definitely changed, and these days - when Israel does turn to France for diplomatic support or cover - one of the Frenchmen it turns to is Christophe Bigot, the 43-year-old ambassador who one senior Israeli diplomatic official said was "very helpful" this week in Jerusalem's efforts to push back against the Swedish proposal.
Bigot has a unique perspective on the Franco-Israeli relationship, having served in Tel Aviv during the "lean years" as the number two at the embassy, and now coming back during the "fat years."
Bigot, a father of two, served in Lebanon during the 1990s, followed by a stint at the UN under Jean-David Levitt, today a key Sarkozy adviser. It is Levitt who recommended that Bigot, who when Sarkozy was elected was working in the Tel Aviv embassy, be brought back to Paris to serve as newly appointed Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's chief Middle East adviser. He served in that post until being appointed ambassador to Israel in September.
Sitting in Bigot's spacious office at the embassy on Herbert Samuel Street directly overlooking the sea, pictures of David Ben-Gurion and Charles de Gaulle given pride of place on a mantle place, one is immediately struck by a tone markedly different from that heard during the Chirac years.
Here was a French diplomat who was not lecturing, not hectoring, not pushing Israel to take actions it thought would harm its own security. Rather, the easy-going Bigot gives off the perception of someone who understands and deeply empathizes with Israel and Israelis. Indeed, he said that one of the reasons he believes he was chosen as ambassador, despite his relative youth, was that Sarkozy and Kouchner were looking for someone who would be fair toward Israel.
What follows are excerpts from an interview that touches on everything from the Sarkozy-Netanyahu relationship to Iran and Gilad Schalit.
You were here during the bad years when France was not perceived as a friend of Israel, and now you are here in the good years. Do you feel the difference?
Yes, completely. I always tell the story that when I was number two, the tension was so high and pressure so strong that sometimes when my predecessor's wife went to dinners, she pretended to be French Canadian to avoid the usual debate about French policy in the Middle East. Not that she was ashamed, but that she didn't want the dinner polarized around this issue.
When I arrived in 2004 the peak of the tension was fading away. In 2003 we started to disassociate our relationship with Israel from the conflict, and [began] the policy was that we could have an excellent relationship with Israel without agreeing on every action on the conflict.
Today the welcome is very warm and rather impressive, and the reaction here is completely different. The attitudes have changed, from negative to now very positive.
In some ways the relationship is becoming one between brothers - they can fight and disagree, but they remain brothers. There is not one who is lecturing to the other; not one condescending to the other. We can have differences, but it is easier to explain why we have those differences, and to clarify them without things getting out of proportion.
Who is responsible for the change?
At the macro level I think definitely the election of Nicolas Sarkozy and the appointment of Bernard Kouchner were perceived here as a landslide change in the policy. Here in Israel there is a French community of over 100,000 people, 99 percent of whom are French-Israelis, and they voted 90 percent for Sarkozy. It was the highest percentage of people around the world voting for the current president.
The feeling of Israelis and the French in Israel was that Sarkozy was an excellent friend of Israel and a friend of the Jewish community.
Beyond the perception that they are better friends, has there been a change of policy as well?
First of all perception is essential. You can say something, but if you say it as a friend it is completely different than if you say it as someone who has a distant perspective, without comprehension. So the psychological factor is essential.
So Sarkozy can say the same things as Chirac, but they are perceived differently?
They are obviously perceived differently. Chirac was not properly understood, although he made historical moves toward the Jewish community. I think the president and Kouchner, whatever they are trying to do with Israel - of course they want to promote peace and an independent and viable Palestinian state -are trying to do it taking into account Israeli security interests, taking into account that there is nothing easy about settling a conflict that has been there at least for 60 years, and that this can't be done only through declarations and statements saying what should be.
When we express things differently - as a brother and not as a parent - it changes the atmosphere completely.
Netanyahu says he and Sarkozy have a close relationship. How important is that in forging ties between states?
I think it is essential - you can of course see history as long-term trend, and one in which man has no impact on these trends. But the perception I have, and having been in Kouchner's cabinet, I think psychology, human relations, confidence, perceptions are essential.
And the fact that they [Sarkozy and Netanyahu] have an excellent relationship is important. Because whenever there is a disagreement they can meet. It is not that they can agree on everything, but they can understand the degree of disagreement, why they disagree, and not be satisfied with it but look for solutions, realistic proposals.
They both have charisma, a lot of energy, a lot of ambition, so it is not difficult to understand why there is such a good chemistry between them.
One of the first things Sarkozy did when he took office was change France's attitude toward Syria. He brought Syrian President Bashar Assad in from the cold. What did that achieve?
I think this was a combined action of France and Israel, though not coordinated. At the very time when France was working with the Syrians, the Israelis announced they were launching indirect negotiations with Syria. This element - even more than our policy - played a great role in changing the attitude of world toward Syria.
When Sarkozy came into power, he was able in a more free manner to engage in real politics. He thought that, yes, it was possible to get something from Syria. Our impression is that we were able to get from Syria more stability in Lebanon.
When we arrived, Lebanon was in a messy situation - a deep crisis. There was no parliament, no president, and now all those institutions are there, they are enjoying a good growth. This is not saying it is over, no. But this would not have been done without Syrian assistance.
Now we have to go beyond this. We have to implement [UN Security Council] Resolution 1701, and in many regards we are far from full implementation of this resolution, and one aspect of course is to disarm the Hizbullah. We think that one of the ways to disarm Hizbullah is to integrate it more into Lebanon's policy, and the second way of course is to stop any smuggling of weapons.
Does Paris believe it is possible to get Syria out of the Iranian orbit?
We think it is possible that Syria will look for alternative alliances and relationships, and we believe Syria wants to have links with all countries. Bashar Assad received a Western education, so we think there is a potential. We are not asking him to cut all ties with Iran, but we would like him to contribute actively to the stability of the region.
But he is not doing that, so why do you think he will?
This policy is only two years old, and a lot of energy has been invested in it for only a year. We have been able to see in one year substantial change in Lebanon. We are not saying that all our objectives have been met; We are looking at this with open eyes.
Is France pushing for Israeli-Syrian engagement? Does Paris want to mediate?
The president received Bibi last month on a Wednesday, and that same Friday he received Assad. So there was good proximity to check whether there was substance, and to test the idea of launching something at this time.
His feeling is that there is a potential, but there are no promises from either Bibi or Bashar, and this is really in the initial stages. We will see. We will try to work on this with the Turks. The Turks have done tremendous work. They were very close to an achievement in December last year, and we have to talk about this with the Americans. Nothing can be agreed in this region without the American agreement. We think there is a potential here that we should work on, but it is in a very initial stage.
Do the Palestinians want to see movement on this track, or are they worried it will divert attention from their track?
The conventional wisdom is that the two tracks stand opposed to each other, that if we move on the Syrian track it will be detrimental to the Palestinian track. This is not the way we think. But more importantly we asked the Palestinians what they think about it. This is not what they told us. To the contrary, they said it would ease the tensions in the region, and that movement on the Syrian track could facilitate reconciliation between the Palestinians.
We know that Syria has some influence in the region, and on the Palestinian scene. So if Syria is engaged in a political process with Israel, even if indirect, from the Palestinian point of view it could help Hamas be more moderate and be more willing to reconcile with Fatah. That is how they see it. As long as you agree that Syria has some influence on the Palestinian scene, and nobody challenges that, their influence could be positive or negative. If you negotiate with someone, maybe his influence will be more positive then if you don't.
Let me move to the Palestinians. What is your feeling about Netanyahu's housing start moratorium in the settlements?
We welcome this announcement. it is as a positive step, a step in the right direction, it will help ease tension in the West Bank, it will strengthen Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] and facilitate a resumption of the peace process.
We understand that from a Palestinian point of view, from an international law point of law, from a European and American point of view, this is not the ideal. We expected to get a full moratorium. We still expect this.
But we also understand that such a move, never taken in the past, coming from this government, this Knesset, is very significant in nature. We understand that it is not easy - we see already there is a lot of controversy on this. We understand this was not an easy decision for Bibi, and we now have to look on the ground, to the implementation of such a measure. We understand that there may be opposition on the ground. So we hope the government will be in a position to implement the decision.
The Palestinians automatically rejected it. What is your government saying to them about this?
The Palestinians asked for a full moratorium, including east Jerusalem, as the US and Europeans asked for it. So in this sense the decision does not fulfill expectations. Now what we are telling them is that we should go for negotiations. Negotiations are the best way to settle this problem.
You settle it by a very simple manner: decide on the borders, and settling Jerusalem's status. Through these two means you will find solutions to problems that seem acute today. When you know where the border is you will know what is allowed, and what is not allowed, so that is why we are telling them to go for the negotiations.
The sense we have from our talks with the Israeli government is that they are serious about going into the negotiations, that it is not negotiations for the sake of negotiations, but rather to reach an agreement. Even if the Palestinians don't believe this, they should test the willingness.
We have an excellent partner in Abu Mazen, but Abu Mazen these days is in a very delicate situation. We have to find ways to help him get out of this position and become stronger. I hope the moratorium will help. Other measures maybe also necessary.
Is there anything the French or Europeans can do to pressure him to negotiate?
We are not going to pressure someone in a delicate position. It is not about pressure. To the contrary, we can give him some help, guarantees, reassure him, and look at the framework of the negotiations.
What kind of guarantees?
For example the EU has said several times we are willing to provide security guarantees. If there is any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and if they are interested and willing to go in that direction, the EU has said repeatedly we are willing to provide security guarantees in the West Bank- that would help both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
What does this mean? European troops on the borders, patrolling Nablus?
How it will work depends on the agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, and what they are looking for. There are several options between a minimalist observation mission, to a maximalist NATO force. This really depends on the two parties. We are not going to impose on them something. It is up to them basically.
After Afghanistan, do you really think Europe has the stomach to send troops into the West Bank?
Sending troops is only possible if necessary, and if there is agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and there are clear rules of engagement. In Afghanistan we are only intervening at the request of the government, not the other side. It is completely different. Here it would be guaranteeing peace; in Afghanistan it is not guaranteeing peace, but rather trying to establish it.
Turning to Gilad Schalit, who is a French citizen. What do you think about Israel's apparent willingness to release hundreds of terrorists for Schalit?
There is enormous solidarity in France with the Schalit family, and I think it is beyond the fact that he is French. I think there is also connection because everyone can understand what it is like for a father and a mother to have their son away for such a long time. Everyone can understand the intensity of the link between Israel and each of its citizens.
And I have to say also there is maybe a Jewish element there. The way you consider each life, the way you consider each individual, is very special. The fact that you were able in the past - I think it was with Hizbullah - to release prisoners with, as you say, blood on their hands, for the release not of live people, but just the return of bodies, shows how intense is the relationship, the unique relationship, in Israel between each of the citizens and the government. This is in someway very special to this country.
So in this context we understand the dilemma faced by the Israeli government, a very difficult dilemma. We strongly support the Israeli government action on the matter.
Are you advising the Israeli government to make the deal?
I don't think the Israeli government needs any advice on this. The responsibility for the release of Palestinian prisoners is your decision. But if Israel asks us, we say we support the decision because we think it is essential to release Gilad Schalit.
We feel also that his release may change the whole situation in Gaza: the opening of the crossings, the climate that Hamas is imposing on its people. After [Netanyahu's] Bar-Ilan speech and the moratorium, Gilad Schalit needs to be the third act for Bibi, and the three moves are going in the right direction, are creating some space, easing the tensions, helping to find a common ground. No one is saying it is easy or simple, maybe there is no other country in the world like Israel that will be in a position to release prisoners. But once more, you have very special values in this country; you have done it in the past.
Would France do it?
We have never been put into that position. I am telling my French friends that it is to the credit of this country that it places so much worth and value on one life, and takes so many risks to get that life. I emphasize this because there is always a misperception of Israel in Europe and the US. This is a good example to fight that prejudice against Israel.
Let's turn now to Iran. Would the French public understand sanctions that would cause them economic losses?
Yes, they know this. If you look at the figures you see a dramatic drop. We were not so long ago a rather important [trading] partner for Iran. We are no longer. The French people can see the effect. I don't have figures but the drop was spectacular. There was an impression that we could have an agreement with Iran. There is no delusion about this anymore. We are preparing ourselves to take drastic economic sanctions.
A lot of opportunities for dialogue, for an agreement, have been given to Iran, generous offers have been provided. We got only negative answers or silence. We cannot wait longer - the more we talk, the more the centrifuges are working, and the more Iran is getting closer to the nuclear threshold. That is why we can't wait and wait on negotiations that lead us nowhere.
Would you understand if Israel decided to take military action?
Up to now we are still convinced that it is possible to force Iran to abide by the resolutions through either dialogue or - if that doesn't work - through sanctions. So let's first look at approving serious sanctions, and implementation of such serious sanctions.
I think everyone in Israel knows what the consequences could be of an Israeli action in Iran. I have not seen anyone here in this country looking at this option as something that is desirable or welcome. I don't think this is the Israeli wish. My impression is that the Israelis would like our policy to work. That is why we are in very close cooperation in this area.