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Sarkozy brought a breath of fresh air to the Paris-Jerusalem relationship.

sarkozy wife bg 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
sarkozy wife bg 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
There will be no major agreements signed during President Nicolas Sarkozy's current visit to Israel. Yet not often are we privileged to have a French head of state with us - and a well-disposed one, at that. Therefore, without reservation, we heartily welcome M. Sarkozy and his lovely, very personable wife, along with their entourage, which includes some 100 top business executives and a delegation from the French Jewish community. We are clearly on an upswing in Franco-Israeli relations, which have known sharp, indeed bipolar, vicissitudes. They have been among the best, and had descended to incredible lows. Israelis can hardly be faulted for not forgetting Charles de Gaulle's contemptuous censure branding all Jews as "arrogant and domineering people," or, in 2001, the French ambassador to Britain's snide slur, calling Israel "that shitty little country." Until the 1960s Israel had no better friend internationally than France, which was then our principal purveyor of military hardware. France supplied Israel with Mirage jet-fighters and was instrumental in helping to construct the Dimona nuclear reactor. In 1956 it was our ally in the Sinai Campaign. From those peaks it was, however, an abrupt plummet to the abyss of the French arms embargo following the 1967 Six Day War, leading to Israel's surreptitious commandeering of fully-paid-for naval vessels harbored in Cherbourg which de Gaulle had refused to hand over. FROM ISRAEL'S point of view, Sarkozy's 2007 electoral victory was one of the most hopeful developments in decades vis-a-vis Jerusalem's relations with a European power. Sarkozy's declaration last October that "the establishment of the State of Israel was the most important event of the 20th century" would have been unimaginable just a few months previously. There are other indicators of improved ties. By conservative estimates, France is Israel's tenth largest export market. The ratio between exports and imports, moreover, is nearly equal, and Israel's hi-tech know-how is evoking increasing interest in France. Fifty-eight percent of French investments in this country have been in real estate. In other spheres French concerns are heavily involved, despite Arab outcries, in constructing the new railway line from Ben-Gurion Airport to Jerusalem. Shared cultural ties were embodied, most recently, by France's gift of a beautiful fountain for Jerusalem's Paris Square. It's clear that France is eager to reestablish its role as a prime Mideastern player and realizes that this cannot be achieved by alienating Israel as disdainfully as it once did. Sarkozy's initiative in launching a Mediterranean Union from which Israel wouldn't be excluded is most conspicuously in that vein. THIS ISN'T to say France is now squarely in Israel's corner. Paris linked the upgrading of Israel's association with the EU to "progress" in the negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah, putting the onus on Israel. It has called for a categorical settlement freeze. Such French demands, though, place particular responsibility on France, which assumes the EU presidency on July 1 for a critical six months. France is one of Iran's most significant trading partners; it must now push hard for robust sanctions against Teheran. This is an opportunity for Sarkozy to make good on his words to the Knesset on Monday, that "those who shamelessly call for the destruction of Israel will always - always - find France blocking their way." On the Palestinian front, Paris must ensure that the EU remains steadfast in having no diplomatic contact with Hamas so long as it does not eschew violence, recognize Israel and accept previous Palestinian Authority commitments. Likewise France must help persuade relative Palestinian moderates to abandon their demands for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines and a "right of return" of millions of Arab refugees to Israel proper - signifying the demographic destruction of the Jewish state. And it can use its leverage on Syria to elicit more from Bashar Assad than a possible grudging handshake with Ehud Olmert at the July 13 inauguration of the Mediterranean Union. It should push Assad to define his vision of normalization and peace. Sarkozy has brought a real breath of fresh air to the Paris-Jerusalem relationship. Needed now are substantive underpinnings to the perceptible and welcome change of tone.