Analysis: The French Connection - What can we expect from the Sarkozy visit?

Despite strong alliance, experts say deep political disagreements remain, especially on Sarkozy's "Arab policy."

As French President Nicolas Sarkozy begins his first state visit to Israel, questions linger as to what will be accomplished during his short stay and where the overall state of Franco-Israeli relations lies. According to Tsilla Hershco, a specialist in relations between France and Israel at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, despite the strengthening of bilateral and strategic relations between Israel and France under Sarkozy, along with an improvement in both ambiance and tone, significant political disagreements remain between the two countries on both the Palestinian issue and Sarkozy's so-called "Arab Policy," among others. While Hershco maintained that Sarkozy's election in May 2007 sparked expectations in Israel of a new era in Franco-Israeli relations, these expectations were related to Sarkozy's friendly declarations towards Israel, including his sensitivity to Israel's security challenges and his determination to fight terror. Nonetheless, Herscho pointed out that the French Foreign Ministry, headed by Bernard Kouchner, continues its condemnation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and portrays them as an obstacle to the peace process, alongside that of Palestinian terrorism. "France fiercely demands the removal of checkpoints intended to protect Israeli citizens from acts of Palestinian terror," she wrote in an extensive analysis on relations between the two countries. "Additionally, France blames Israel for the economic damage incurred by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and for the PA's failure to establish effective governance." As far as Sarkozy's "Arab Policy," Hershco brought up the French premier's initiative to create a Mediterranean Union, intended to link European and non-European countries along the Mediterranean Sea. France is organizing a conference for the inauguration of the Union on July 13, as the opposition of Arab countries such as Libya and Algeria to an Israeli presence in the new forum marks its preparations. Other Franco-Israeli experts asserted that Sarkozy's hands may be tied with regard to his nation's relationship with Israel, and that his upcoming Mediterranean Union conference in particular will give him reason to tread lightly while wining and dining with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Jerusalem. "This visit comes at a time that is not ideal," said French-Israeli expert Daniel Haik by phone on Sunday. "Sarkozy wants to show that he has had a strong relationship with Israel since the beginning of his career, which is true, but this might not be the right time to do it." Haik first blamed Olmert, whom he said may not be in office much longer, and was considered politically weak. Meeting with him won't score Sarkozy many points, even with Israelis, Haik explained. But beyond that, Haik said that Sarkozy's desire to court Arab countries in relation to the Mediterranean Conference was the main reason to expect a quiet and subdued visit. "Most of the Arab countries are not coming to the summit," Haik said, "and Sarkozy doesn't want this thing to completely fall apart. That said, I don't think we will see a 'super warm' reception, like that of [George W.] Bush when he was here. In my opinion we will see something much more quiet." While Haik admitted that Sarkozy is known to be spontaneous and is prone to going off the script, he said that he believed the French president would most likely stick to making statements the Arabs want to hear. "He'll probably come out and say that Israel needs to move forward with the peace process or stop building settlements," Haik said. "To make my point, Sarkozy is not going to give a press conference in Israel, but will do so when he visits Bethlehem. This is strange behavior for someone who loves Israel." But Igal Palmor, another Franco-Israeli expert, dismissed the press conference as a minor gesture and nothing more. "With all due respect to the press, a press conference isn't the most important thing," Palmor said. "He is going to be in the Palestinian Authority for a very short time and it might be important to him to give this audience to the press there. Don't forget, on our side, he's going to address the Knesset, which I think is a larger event than a press conference in Bethlehem." Palmor also noted Sarkozy's spontaneity, and dismissed the idea that he would tow any sort of line. "It's well known that [Sarkozy] often does what isn't expected of him, so we'll have to wait and see. I don't think anyone knows what he will do," he said. Palmor also dismissed the notion that Sarkozy was terribly worried about the approval of the Arab countries, saying that Algeria, for example, had a long-standing relationship with France, and that any Israeli connections could do little to disturb it. "France has always been a big international player," Palmor said. "Now that the president is a big friend of Israel, maybe we'll see more French involvement in the Middle East. But this is nothing new, France was Israel's closest ally until the 1960s, and there are a lot of people in France that still remember that. We're seeing a change in French public opinion today, mainly from Sarkozy's victory. He has been a friend of Israel since before he was the mayor of Paris, and every French person that voted for him knew that."