The French intervention in Mali and Israel

Analysis: French activity in Mali will likely give Paris another reason to push hard on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

French soldiers heading to Mali, January 2013. (photo credit: Reuters)
French soldiers heading to Mali, January 2013.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Mali, for most Israelis, is far, far away, and the dramatic events unfolding there do not really have much of an impact on life here – especially in the heat of an election campaign.
With Likud Beytenu throwing mud at Bayit Yehudi, and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni trashing Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, who has time to follow reports of the bold French intervention in Mali to stem Islamic jihadists from taking over the northern part of that country in western Africa? And yet we should take note, and not only because keeping al-Qaida affiliates from gaining a base anywhere on the globe is in Israel’s interests, as it is in the interest of the rest of the world. We should take note because the French activity there – fighting Muslims in another far-flung corner of the globe – will likely give Paris yet another reason, yet more motivation, to push hard on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The French, now facing real threats from Islamic radicals to extract vengeance on their nationals wherever they are because of the Mali operation, will want to prove their bona fides; they will want to show the Islamic world that they have nothing against Muslims. And what better way for Paris to show the Muslim world that it really has nothing against it – that it is only fighting radical Islamic global jihadists – than to champion the Palestinian cause.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would do well to brace for a French-led, full-court press for a resumption of the diplomatic process after the elections. And that will likely lead to placing significant heat on Israel.
Already last week French President François Hollande was quoted by Ma’ariv as saying that a French Middle East peace initiative, aimed at bringing Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table, is expected after Tuesday’s elections.
AFP further reported that Hollande said a continued freeze in peace talks could lead to harsh repercussions from Europe.
“If the stagnation we saw in the last four years continues, their [Europe’s] dealings with anything pertaining to settlements will intensify,” he was quoted as saying, suggesting that the EU might ban entry to “extremist settlers.”
“Europe got used to imposing sanctions and knows how it’s done,” he was quoted as saying. “If there is a political desire to impose sanctions on Israeli elements, the mechanisms are already in place.”
Perhaps as a foretaste of what is in store, Paris took the lead Thursday in slamming Israel for issuing tenders to build some 200 new housing units in Efrat and Kiryat Arba, developments it had already blasted in early December, soon after Jerusalem announced plans to build some 3,000 units in the capital and the settlement blocs as part of its response to the Palestinian’s successful upgrade at the UN General Assembly.
Even though Netanyahu is in the thick of an election campaign, he took heed of the voices coming from Paris and called Hollande last week. After praising the French president for his decision to take action in Mali, Netanyahu threw in a thinly veiled jab.
“You took a brave step against extremist Islamic terrorism,” Netanyahu said, according to a readout of the call provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.
“In my meetings with African leaders I learned how much it threatens the future of the continent.
While there are countries for which the threat of terrorism is thousands of kilometers away from the homes of their citizens, we in Israel are familiar with the threat of global terrorism from up close. For us it is only a few hundred meters away from our homes.”
Netanyahu’s message was clear: “You are flying thousands of kilometers from Paris to take commendable military action because you think the terrorism in Mali can be used as a springboard against France and Europe. We are facing those threats a few hundred meters from our home, so don’t push us to take security risks – to withdraw from territory – that could bring Islamic radicals onto our very doorstep.”
Nevertheless, when the Mali adventure is over, Hollande is likely to come under domestic pressure to take a more assertive role vis-à-vis Israel.
The argument will likely follow these lines: “Paris dispatched French forces thousands of kilometers away and put French life on the line to act in an African nation because Hollande said that impacted on French security. So, too, the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the continued expansion of settlements, also impacts France’s security.”
According to this argument, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict feeds Islamic radicalism that is upsetting and further destabilizing the Middle East; and a destabilized Middle East threatens the security of France and Europe. As such, Hollande will be under pressure by those saying that just as he took action in Mali to secure French interests, he must do the same – albeit through diplomatic means and with measures which are obviously dramatically different than what he used in Mali – with Israel.
In other words, don’t be surprised if France hands Israel part of its Mali bill. •