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Arik in Paris?

31 July 2005

By Yisrael Ne'eman

One would think that PM Ariel Sharon would not find the time for a European jaunt as his semi-dysfunctional Disengagement Plan went into effect. But the opportunity to visit Paris and President Jacques Chirac was far too important to pass up. While Israel swirls in a sea of orange Sharon engaged in some serious diplomacy. France is not known for its sympathies towards Israel and the feeling is mutual.

But it was not always that way. After WWII France often turned a blind eye to the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors to Mandated Palestine, much to the dismay of the British. From 1956 – 67 and the eve of the Six Day War the French were Israel’s only true friend and patron, often running interference for the Jewish State in the international arena. During this period Paris supplied much of the know how for the government’s nuclear development program at Dimona. But in typical Parisian fashion, when Israel was cornered and alone during the “Waiting Period” just prior to the 1967 conflict and hoping the international community would deter the Arabs from continuing to mobilize, the French withdrew their support and declared an arms embargo on the Middle East. Israel has never forgotten nor forgiven and relations took a turn for the worse since then.

Whenever the right wing Gaullists are in power Paris is overtly (in your face?) pro-Arab, often to the point of revulsion as reflected by the policies pursued in the 1970s. When the Socialist Mitterand came to power the anti-Israel behavior eased up, but relations were at best cool. Over the years though, if there was anyone the French loved to hate it was Ariel Sharon. The French in particular vilified him over his pro-settlement policies, his handling of the War in Lebanon in 1982 where he was often referred to as a “murderer” and “butcher” and as of late there were those who painted him as an Israeli Milosevic due to his successful anti-terror campaign against Yasser Arafat’s murderous homicide bombers. Sharon broke the back of Palestinian terror in the West Bank at least for the moment but all the French cared to talk of was the “suffering of the Palestinian People” which they attributed to Israel and not to Arafat’s terror offensive. They denied Israel the right to defend itself.

So why Arik’s rush to Paris? First of all, like it or not, Israel has massive economic interests in the EU - Jerusalem’s largest trading partner. Secondly, the French Jewish community is feeling the heat from the traditional antisemites and French Moslems (who make up about 10% of the population). But why should Chirac care and grant Sharon such a warm welcome?

Despite all its drawbacks France is a threatened democracy, fearing a massive terror offensive similar to what happened in the US, Britain and Madrid. By welcoming Sharon, Paris is signaling the world and its own Moslem population that it stands on the side of anti-terror. In the immediate sphere Chirac is showing his support for Disengagement and the two-state solution while sending a message to the Palestinian Jihad and Hamas and the Israeli anti-disengagement activists that he sides with the efforts of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon in bringing conflict resolution. Hopefully, Chirac figures, moves towards peace will lessen the terror threat.

Everyone knows that Chirac, France and the EU are not fully satisfied with Sharon’s first step, even if they announce whole hearted support. At the moment, at least officially, they speak of Israel “negotiating” itself back to the 1967 armistice lines. In return Israel will receive “recognition” and “end of conflict”. The policy diverts quite a bit from that of Washington. So what’s Sharon’s deal?

Chirac is considered the most pro-Arab of all the EU leaders. Last year the EU voted as a bloc in the UN to condemn Israeli construction of the security fence although they were not eager to vomit up the issue again two weeks ago. Only recently have the French taken a strong stand against terrorism (even of the Palestinian variety). As for Palestinian refugee return, the EU urges negotiations where as the US does not see such a “return” as a solution. Sharon hopes to turn Europe’s hostile neutrality into friendly neutrality and should that be obtained he may consider supporting EU participation in the peace process. The Israeli PM hopes to gain support for resettling the refugees outside of Israel (especially in their countries of residence) and border rectifications based on Israeli security and demographic needs, just as he did with President Bush in April 2004.

In return he can plan for further withdrawals from the West Bank and maybe stitch together a few trade agreements in the process.