Analysis: Unpopular at home, Hollande appreciated in Israel

French president has earned Paris a greater degree of respect in Jerusalem than it has enjoyed in years.

Netanyahu and Hollande at the airport 370 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Netanyahu and Hollande at the airport 370
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
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.
That 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.
And Hollande 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 public.
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 negotiators.
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.
Hollande sufficed with saying he pinned a great deal of hope on the negotiations.
“You will 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 ears.
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.
There was 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, fraternity”).
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 ties.”
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.
Netanyahu said 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.