Israelis ponder the French meaning of ‘ally’

While ties remain strong in certain areas, the Palestinian issue is a cause of perpetual tension.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they attend a joint press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 5, 2018.  (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER / REUTERS)
French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they attend a joint press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 5, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron last week directed his United Nations representative to vote in favor of a General Assembly resolution calling for international protection for Palestinians and denouncing Israel’s response to the so-called “March of Return” protests, which ended in more than 100 deaths. The resolution notably failed to mention the role of Hamas – recognized as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union – in planning, fomenting and directing the violence in the Gaza Strip.
France was joined by Belgium, whose capital is the seat of the EU. Although choosing not to back the Israeli position, France’s European neighbors Germany and the United Kingdom elected to abstain, presumably because of the obvious lack of balance, if for no other reason.
Although France moments earlier had voted in support of an amendment to the resolution offered by the United States that attributed blame to Hamas, that motion failed after receiving a plurality but falling short of the required two-thirds majority.
Weeks before, France had voted in favor of a Kuwaiti-drafted Security Council resolution that, if not for a US veto, would have mandated the deployment of an international force to Gaza expressly to protect the Gazans. This, despite the availability of the “get-home-free card” to abstain rather than support the measure – as did London and Berlin. The resolution so vehemently opposed by its allies in Jerusalem was stopped by virtue of US Ambassador Nikki Haley’s promise to cast the American veto.
THE GAZA resolutions were not the only recent examples of President Macron’s words of support to his bewildered “allies” in the Jewish state and his actions in the international forum failing to match up. In December, France voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and demanding that the move be reversed. While his failure to oppose the GA measure amounted to a tacit rejection of a personal plea by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, two weeks ago the French president poked a diplomatic stick in the Israeli eye when at a joint press conference with Netanyahu in Paris, Macron linked the embassy relocation to the chaos in Gaza.
“Experience shows that whether you like it or not, things like that provoke violence... [and] this leads to people dying,” he argued, despite knowing that the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to France had informed the Macron government that Iran was financing [read enabling] the violent protests.
Macron supporters argue that with respect to Gaza, and to the Palestinians more generally, the president seems to be guided by France’s foundational principles of “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” But citing issues with the French Muslim population and perceived fears within the populace of a growing threat from Islamist fundamentalism, Macron’s critics respond that the government’s policies will do little for Palestinians living under radical Islamist rule of Hamas’ Muslim theocracy.
Closer to home, many surmise with certainty that with every passing terrorist incident perpetrated against French nationals on home turf – including another earlier this month in which a knife-wielding woman attacked two shoppers in a market in La Seyne-sur-Mer while screaming “Allahu Akbhar” – the government should reasonably be expected to publicly back or, at the very least, tacitly acknowledge through its inaction on one-sided UN measures, Israel’s need to decisively combat forces directed by the same ideology.
Others see a longstanding desire by French leaders to become “players” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace quest beneath today’s headlines. They suggest that it’s now Macron’s turn to flex the nation’s Arabist bona fides dating back to its arms embargo in the run-up to the 1967 war, which was dramatic in its time given the military ties Paris and Jerusalem had enjoyed – all exacerbated by what some see as a national guilt for helping to launch Israel’s still-undeclared nuclear program.
“First of all, since 1967 I would not describe France as an ally of Israel, especially after it declared an arms embargo at the most critical point for the nation up to that date,” Ambassador Avi Pazner, a former Israeli envoy to Paris, contended to The Media Line.
“Instead, Israel considers France a friendly nation. There are good bilateral relations – in terms of trade, tourism, culture and intelligence exchanges.” But “there is a problem at the political level, as Paris has shifted toward the Arab world and has therefore consistently voted against Israel at the UN.
“There is thus a duality in the ties. So long as there is no solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, this will not change and there is little chance of progress in the near future.”
Ambassador Freddy Eytan, a former senior adviser in Israel’s Foreign Ministry who served in the Israeli embassies in both Paris and Brussels, agrees that the Palestinian issue is – and will remain – a major roadblock to enhancing ties between the two nations.
“France has decoupled the Palestinian issue from the relationship with Israel, including in regard to counterterrorism cooperation, which is strong,” he explained to The Media Line.
“Paris wants to resolve the conflict. It has tried many times before and failed. The UN Security Council is a forum that can adopt binding resolutions [to this effect], so it acts accordingly in this body. Nevertheless,” he stressed, “there is a contradiction, because the EU has designated Hamas a terrorist organization, but then France claims that Israel has no right to react when its members provoke Israeli soldiers.”
AMBASSADORS PAZNER and Eytan both believe that France’s policies are governed by pragmatism. “There are 21 states in the Arab League and Israel is just one,” the latter noted. “So Paris wants to deal with the Arabs – and must therefore support the Palestinians – because it is in their commercial interest, just like in the case of Iran. This is why France supports the nuclear deal. It is an example of economics [trumping] morality.”
Despite the nations’ obvious differences, Netanyahu was warmly received this month at Elysee Palace, seemingly at the drop of the dime. During the aforementioned media session, Macron backed one of the Israeli premier’s foremost demands; namely, that Iranian forces fully vacate Syria, where, perhaps not coincidentally, the French military recently conducted, in conjunction with Washington, air strikes targeting Assad regime assets. He also suggested that the atomic agreement itself was insufficient to curb Tehran’s regional expansionism, echoing statements previously made in the presence of US President Donald Trump.
Notably, Macron has gone to great lengths to alleviate the fears of the local Jewish community amid rising incidences of antisemitism. This past March he attended the funeral of Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor who was murdered by her Muslim neighbor. The French president has consistently vowed to crack down on anti-Jewish incitement and violence, even as thousands of Jews to continue to flee France for more secure pastures in Israel, the United States and Canada.
Unanimous among experts who spoke to The Media Line is the belief that there is a duality of approach that renders France an ally on issues of personal safety and the respective wars on terrorism and antisemitism – personal issues between France’s Jews and their government – while barely an ally, if at all, in its rhetoric of friendship to the Jewish state on the international scene.
Measured by the mass emigration of its Jewish population in recent years, President Macron’s incongruous efforts to support this clumsy contrast are nowhere near convincing to a segment of his populace that is told not to listen to the man behind the curtain: “It’s just differences between friends.”
The writers are, respectively, the executive editor and managing editor of The Media Line.