With a chill wind starting to blow toward Israel from Washington as US President Joe Biden still has not called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his spokeswoman equivocated oddly when asked whether Israel remained an important US ally, this might be the time for Israel to look at upgrading and revamping ties with France.
Yes, France, that country which so many Israelis view as anti-Israel because of its almost reflexive support for Palestinian positions in international forums, and its often hyper-critical condemnations of Israeli policy. Yes, France, that country which many Israelis eye suspiciously dating back to Charles de Gaulle’s arms embargo just prior to the 1967 Six Day War.
Why? Because, as Oliver Rafowicz, a former IDF spokesman for the foreign media, wrote in a position paper in September for the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security (JISS), France’s political interests currently “dovetail with Israel’s” on multiple issues.
First, French President Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in Europe in standing strongly against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s designs in the eastern Mediterranean, whether in regards to Turkey’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus, or in backing rival camps in Libya. And this tough stand against Erdogan puts Israel and France very much on the same side of the fence when it comes to Turkey.
Last week, Greece and France signed a $3 billion arms deal as part of Greece’s efforts to bolster its military to confront Turkish challenges in its neighborhood. That weapons deal followed by a few weeks the announcement that Israel and Greece had agreed on a $1.68b. deal to establish and operate a flight training center for the Greek Air Force.
Greece and Turkey engaged in a showdown last summer in the Mediterranean, with Turkey sending an exploration ship and a small navy flotilla to conduct seismic research in waters that Greece considers its own, and Greece dispatching its own warships and staging naval exercises with allies. Macron was at the forefront in the EU backing Greece.
In the Libyan conflict as well, Macron positioned France together with its close Gulf ally the United Arab Emirates and Egypt against Turkey, which sent military support to the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. France, along with Egypt, the UAE and Russia, back the rival forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
“Macron is the only leader actively confronting Turkish policy in the eastern Mediterranean and not just posturing against it. In doing so he has made France an effective ally of Egypt, the UAE, and Israel,” Rafowicz wrote.
In Lebanon as well, he pointed out, Macron has visited Beirut twice since the deadly blast last August and is taking the lead in demanding government reforms in Lebanon that would trim Hezbollah’s wings – something that also dovetails with Israeli interests.
“In close coordination with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates... Macron has defined the protection of moderate Muslim nations and the struggle against Islamist radicalism as core French interests,” he wrote.
And, most importantly, France is emerging as the western power taking the strongest position vis-a-vis Iran. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned just days ago that Iran is in the process of building up its nuclear weapons capacity, and that when talks are renewed with Iran, in addition to the nuclear issues, “tough discussions will be needed over ballistic proliferation and Iran’s destabilization of its neighbors in the region.”
Macron, in a recent interview, called for other countries in the region – such as Saudi Arabia – to be involved in negotiations with Iran, saying that excluding these countries was a mistake during the negotiations leading up to the 2015 deal.
With these types of comments and positioning, France is returning to a position it held during the Obama Administration when it took the toughest line toward the Iranians of any of the six countries involved in the negotiations – including the US.
France’s tough position on Iran, said JISS vice president and former deputy National Security Council head Eran Lerman, gives Israel something to work with in efforts to convince the Biden administration not to rush headlong back into the agreement. Biden has said that he is interested in rebuilding the transatlantic relationship, and having coordinated positions on the matter with France could be beneficial to Israel.
In the negotiations leading up to the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, France was keen on getting Israel’s input into the accord, but this input was not forthcoming because Netanyahu – who did not want to give the accord any legitimacy – directed all Israeli bodies not to engage with other parties over the agreement. In Netanyahu’s thinking such engagement would do nothing to improve the deal, and no deal was better than a bad deal.
“There are very important French positions that congeal with ours on Iran and Turkey,” Lerman said, adding that Israel “needs to be more closely coordinated with Paris.”
Nevertheless, the Palestinian issue looms as a possible obstacle in upgrading the cooperation between the two countries.
According to Rafowicz, however, the commonalties of interests Jerusalem and Paris share on a broad range of issues “from Libya to Lebanon, and across the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Iran,” should “act to reduce the salience of differences between the two countries regarding the Palestinian question.”
In this, France may be prodded on by the UAE not to have its ties with Israel held hostage to Palestinian interests.
“France should take a fresh look at the benefits of closer relations with Israel. In turn, Israel should take the initiative in creating a formal/informal framework for bilateral talks, possibly complemented later by a multilateral framework including Greece, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt,” Rafowicz wrote.
“The overt alignment of Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Jerusalem offers a diplomatic and military platform for rebuilding past ties based on emergent common interests and a new outlook on the Middle East,” he wrote, adding that if France’s interventions in Lebanon and Libya and efforts to contain Turkey are to succeed, “rapprochement with Israel is essential.”