On the annual July 14 Bastille Day celebration, the garden of the French ambassador’s residence in Jaffa fills up with Francophile guests. But those familiar with the history of the relationship know that Jerusalem-Paris ties were once much more significant than mere fondness for French cuisine, literature, and cinema.
Despite emerging victorious from the War of Independence (1948-49), Israel remained an embattled country, surrounded by a hostile Arab world that refused to accept the Jewish state’s legitimacy. While Israel’s immediate neighbors signed armistice agreements that suspended full-scale war, they openly proclaimed their desire for a “second round,” imposed an economic blockade, and permitted/encouraged cross-border terror attacks.
Not wanting to face the region’s threats alone, the nascent Jewish state desperately sought a military ally – but candidates for the role were not lining up to volunteer.
Great Britain had once been a friend. In the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, London had pledged to back the creation of a Jewish homeland. And in April 1920, the League of Nations granted Britain the Palestine Mandate to implement that promise.
But the UK’s support for Zionism gradually eroded, and the final years of the Mandate were characterized by deep mutual recrimination. The Jewish underground’s insurgency against British rule, which reached a crescendo in the July 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, demonstrated that collaboration had been replaced by violent antagonism.
The termination of the Mandate in May 1948 did not heal the relationship; on the contrary, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, had to plan for the possibility that the UK would fight Israel on behalf of the Arabs – as occurred in January 1949, when a dogfight was fought in the skies over northern Sinai between the RAF and the newly established IAF.
If not Britain, many in Israel hoped America would be an ally. The US had been the first country to offer de facto recognition. Yet, despite providing crucial diplomatic backing, Washington was not proposing an alliance.
At the time, US policymakers saw American interests as lying primarily with the Arab world. Accordingly, Washington did not want to be seen as overly abetting Israel, especially when it came to the supply of military equipment.
The USSR had a history of Communist anti-Zionism, but in its desire to see Britain’s Middle East empire collapse, Moscow backed Jewish statehood in the November 1947 UN partition vote. And in May 1948, the Soviet Union became the first country to grant Israel de jure recognition. The Kremlin even enabled the supply of Czech-made arms to Israel, which made a crucial difference in the War of Independence.
But Soviet support was short-lived; Moscow was soon to distance itself from Israel as Stalin’s regime became overtly antisemitic.
The intensification of the Cold War made Israel’s initial policy of “non-identification” between the blocs unsustainable. And following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Israel sided with Seoul against Communist Pyongyang. The Soviets responded by branding Israel an “agent of Western imperialism.”
Israel's military ally
IF THE UK, US, and USSR had no desire to become Israel’s military ally, it was not too long before Paris filled the vacuum. And while France was not one of World War II’s “Big Three” allied victors, for Israel it was the next best thing.
The French were defeated in May-June 1940 and Paris remained occupied by the Nazis until August 1944. Nonetheless, France emerged from the war with an enhanced international status that included an occupation zone in Germany and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Like all good international partnerships, the Franco-Israel alliance of the 1950s was founded on common interests and shared values.
The period’s French leadership espoused the ethos of the wartime Résistance and embraced the Jews as Nazism’s ultimate victims.
This affinity was further strengthened by the series of left-of-center governments during France’s Fourth Republic (1946-58), which shared a socialist fellowship with Israel’s like-minded ruling Mapai (Labor) party.
In parallel, Paris was a magnet for Israeli writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians, who gravitated toward the French capital for inspiration.
Augmenting the cultural and ideological affinity was solid realpolitik. From November 1954, France was conducting an increasingly bloody counterinsurgency against nationalist rebels in Algeria.
Inspired by the Viet Minh’s May 1954 victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, the pro-independence Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) launched an armed revolt against French rule.
But unlike Vietnam, Paris saw Algeria not as a foreign colony, but as an integral part of France, a claim buttressed by the presence of some one million European settlers – the pieds-noirs.
The Algerian revolution received vigorous ideological, diplomatic, and military backing from Cairo, with Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser championing the expulsion of all European colonialists from the greater Arab homeland.
Israel, the enemy of France’s enemy, thus became Paris’s best friend.
NASSER’S JULY 1956 nationalization of the Anglo-French Suez Canal only further cemented the Jerusalem-Paris entente, with France supplying Israel with armor, artillery, aircraft, radar, and much more – balancing the weaponry Egypt was receiving from the USSR.
In mid-1956, Nathan Alterman, then one of Israel’s most prolific poets, was invited by the IDF to witness the clandestine nighttime unloading of French AMX-13 tanks in Israel. Alterman was so affected by what he saw that he composed the poem “Od Yesupar” (“It shall be told”), describing how the receipt of “iron” from abroad would deliver Israel from the Arabs’ threatened slaughter.
And it was indeed French “iron” that helped enable the IDF’s impressive battlefield victories in the October-November 1956 Sinai Campaign and in the June 1967 Six Day War. In the latter conflict, French-made Mirage fighters and Mystère fighter-bombers delivered the IAF’s initial knockout blow.
But France did not welcome Israel’s 1967 preemptive strike. Its war in Algeria ended in March 1962, and president Charles de Gaulle sought to rebuild Paris’s ties with the Arab world.
On the eve of the Six Day War, he in effect abruptly ended the over decade-long Franco-Israel alliance by imposing an arms embargo on Israel, even freezing the supply of equipment Jerusalem had already paid for. In December 1969, Israel surreptitiously transferred five French-built Sa’ar 3-class missile boats from Cherbourg to Haifa.
If today Israelis can all too easily dismiss France as just another critical European country, they’re welcome to drive past the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center outside Dimona and appreciate the enduring succor furnished by Israel’s first ally.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.