French Ambassador to Israel Eric Danon is set to complete his posting after an action-filled four years, in which France-Israel cooperation grew stronger than ever in military cooperation, trade, and more, and ties between Paris and Jerusalem were of great importance in relation to Lebanon and the Iranian nuclear threat.
The ambassador, who is set to retire from the French Foreign Ministry, spoke with The Jerusalem Post in honor of Bastille Day and to wrap up four years in Israel.
Danon was the first Jewish person to represent France in Israel, though, in keeping with the French ethos of laïcité – secularism – very little was made of that fact. Danon also has many years of experience in diplomacy regarding arms control, international terrorism and crime, areas that give him unique insight into areas of concern for Israel.
One of those areas is, of course, Iran. Former foreign minister Yair Lapid said many times that France is closer to Israel’s position on the nuclear threat from Tehran than other Western parties to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement.
“We have the exact same goal as Israel,” Danon said. “Iran must not become a nuclear country. That is clear. We will do everything we can to avoid an Iran with nuclear weapons.
“When we were working on the JCPOA, France was probably the toughest of the six countries,” Danon recounted. “For Israel, this was a good thing. They were happy to rely on France to protect their interests… Israel understood that we were tough and strong.”
However, he added, “From the very beginning, the nuclear issue with Iran was much more than Israel. It is a global challenge, but we include Israel in our concerns.”
Contrary to the current Israeli government’s position, Danon said France is “disappointed by the fact that the US quit, and we do consider that the situation today is worse than it was in 2018.”
France works closely with the US, UK, and Germany, and is in touch with Israel regularly about the Iran talks. It remains aware of the original deal’s weaknesses, which Danon said were the gradual expiration of sanctions known as “sunset clauses,” the money that Iran received, and its continued nuclear research.
“There is no evidence at all, nobody can tell me why it’s better not to have the JCPOA than to have it – even in the Israeli establishment,” Danon said.
Under the terms of the 2015 agreement, UN Security Council sanctions on Iranian ballistic missiles and drones are set to expire in October, but diplomatic sources told the Post that the European “E3” countries in the deal plan to keep their sanctions in place, in light of Iran violating them and exporting drones to Russia for use against Ukraine.
“We are still working on the difficulty of what to do today. We are trying to find a way in the framework of the JCPOA to find something, but the situation is totally different” than in 2015, Danon said, referring, among other things, to Iranian involvement in the war in Ukraine.
France is one of the most powerful countries in the EU, and supports and influences Brussels’s traditional position on what Israel views as Iran-backed terrorist groups.
Banning the IRGC must be done at the European level - Danon
Asked whether Paris would consider banning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Islamic Republic’s international military arm, which trains proxies and sends terrorists on the attack, Danon said that this must be done at the European level so that the EU has a common position.
As for Hezbollah, the EU differentiates between political and military wings, even though the Lebanese Shi’ite group does not make that distinction. This is, perhaps, a reflection of experience with some of the EU’s member states, since Lebanon is like Ireland and Spain in that perpetrators of terrorism ended up becoming parts of their government.
“Seeing that Hezbollah took part of the power in Lebanon, we have to talk with the political branch one way or another. This is the reality,” Danon said. “It doesn’t mean we accept violence from Hezbollah.”
France was also involved in the indirect maritime border talks between Israel and Lebanon, which resulted in the previous government signing a deal in October of last year.
French involvement came about in part because they speak to Hezbollah-affiliated members of the Lebanese government, and Paris worked to ensure that the terrorist group did not get in the way, Danon said.
In addition, TotalEnergies, partly owned by the French government, was the licensee for the gas reservoir in the area of the Mediterranean Sea that is in dispute between Israel and Lebanon.
“The role of France in the maritime negotiations was to make an effort so that the key actors stayed around the table to the end,” Danon recalled. “It took years and years, and then in two months, it became possible. We had five green lights that were previously all bright red.”
The reason for the sudden movement, in which little progress had been made in a decade, was because of the election in Lebanon. The president wanted an achievement to show the public, and Hezbollah felt it could not stand in the way of the potential economic benefits of natural gas for the Lebanese population, the ambassador said.
The timing also worked out well because “Iran was obsessed with its domestic revolution and distracted, so they didn’t put pressure on Hezbollah,” Danon said.
Danon called the agreement an “absolutely historic breakthrough, because, for the first time, Lebanon agreed to admit the existence of the State of Israel.”
The ambassador said that US Envoy Amos Hochstein conducted a “masterclass in diplomacy, putting together two impossible negotiations, the maritime border and the division of money” potentially earned from natural gas in the disputed area.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others in the current government sharply criticized the agreement and argued that it was against Israeli security interests, but they upheld it. Now, some argue that the deal exposed Israel, citing the tents Hezbollah terrorists pitched on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border.
When it comes to gas, Danon pointed out that TotalEnergies must first conduct exploration, and that there are unlikely to be any earnings in the short run.
In the meantime, he said, “France will always do what we can to help Lebanon, to put in place reforms that are needed to bring about a good governance system.”
DANON ARRIVED in Israel after some of the biggest waves of aliyah of French Jews, following terrorist attacks on Jews and Jewish sites.
Though Jews have been impacted by riots that have been roiling France in recent weeks, Danon said “they destroyed so many things, even mosques. I really don’t think we can say these demonstrations were about antisemitism. They were a disaster for everybody.”
France has seen a 40% decrease in antisemitism in the past two years, the ambassador said.
In addition, Paris announced a three-year National Plan to Combat Racism, Antisemitism, and Discrimination Related to Origin earlier this year, following up on a previous plan from 2018. The plan seeks to define racism, antisemitism, and discrimination and measure incidents relating to those phenomena, including polling specifically about antisemitism.
The French government plans to include the study of antisemitism in all school curricula, and train teachers and school staff on the issue. Civil servants and sports supervisors will also receive similar training. The French police are expected to institute better practices to collect and process antisemitic complaints, and prosecutors will be empowered to push for aggravated penalties for antisemitic or racist offenses.
In France, Danon said there is an effort to counter hate speech online by making it punishable by law. “More importantly,” he explained, “we take them off the Web in less than two days. It is almost impossible to have an antisemitic sentence on the Web.”
The decline in aliyah from France almost exactly mirrors the decline in antisemitism, dropping by 42% since last year.
Danon understands this as a positive development, saying that “Jews have made a huge contribution to France,” and have a strong sense of belonging there.
Asked what he is most proud of in his time as ambassador, Danon said that trade increased 40% and pointed to French companies’ involvement in the Jerusalem light rail and Tel Aviv Metro.
He also noted the popularity of affordable French brands, such as Carrefour supermarkets and Decathlon sporting goods stores, and to the luxury market, with Dior, Guerlain, and Chanel opening boutiques, and said that he finds that Israelis love French culture, as well.
The second thing Danon said he is proud of is growing security cooperation.
“Our collaboration against terrorism works very well,” he said, “and we are the country that has the greatest military collaboration with Israel after the US. Vessels from the French Navy dock in Haifa every five weeks; there are meetings between the commanders-in-chief of both sides. French fighter jets landed in Israel for the first time in 2021 as part of the Blue Flag military exercise, and it went so well there is another one planned for next fall.”
Danon also said there is planned cooperation on cyber threats and artificial intelligence in the military, after the French and Israeli defense ministers discussed the matter on the sidelines of this year’s Paris Air Show.
“We are putting in place a system of cooperation that says Israel and France are really allies. It is easy to say, but we put that in place concretely in the past five years. I am very proud of the result,” he said.
Danon may be leaving Israel as ambassador, but he is not saying goodbye to it, and said he plans to come back often to visit friends. He also has been offered a teaching position at an Israeli college, though that has yet to be confirmed.
“I love this country,” he said. “I like how, when you’re in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, it’s like you’re not in the same country. I like the energy of the people and how they are always looking forward. It energizes you to look forward. Israel is a country that gives you the impression that anything is possible, and that is what I like so much.”