PARIS (Dec. 30)
Political circles said today that the French Government will severely discipline certain high ranking officials who are believed to have collaborated with Israelis in the gunboat affair. The official most frequently mentioned yesterday as facing punishment was Gen. Louis Bonte, who heads the interministerial commission on arms exports which approved the sale of the gunboats to a Norwegian “front” firm, Starboat s Weill S.A. The commission did not check out the firm, which proved to be registered in Panama and has close connections to Israel.
Other less prominent officials of the ministries of finance and transport reportedly will face charges of collusion with Israel. They were responsible for customs and port formalities that somehow failed to prevent the five embargoed gunboats from slipping out of Cherbourg on Christmas Day, unnoticed by the harbormaster and without official clearance.
French action with regard to these officials — and the nature of the Government’s response to Israel — will not be known until tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting. A severance of diplomatic relations with Israel has not been excluded. But informed sources here said a strong diplomatic protest was more likely.
France is also expected to declare the Israeli Defense Ministry representative in Europe, Rear Admiral Mordechai Limon, persona non grata. According to the French Defense Ministry, Admiral Limon wrote a letter renouncing all Israeli claims to the gunboats after their purported sale to Norway.
The embarrassment of the Pompidou Government — and its concern over the effects the gunboat affair might have on Franco-Arab relations — appears to be authentic. Knowledgeable sources here discounted speculation that France may have “looked the other way” while the Israelis made off with the gunboats which they had paid for in full. The reasoning behind such speculation was that the Government wanted to mollify pro-Israel elements, especially those in Gaullist ranks, and to take some of the onus off a controversial $400 million arms deal reportedly made with Libya. Sources here said today that the Government now would probably hasten the Libyan deal that is said to include as many as 50 Mirage jets and 200 tanks, in order to appease Arab anger over the gunboat affair.
(In Cairo, an official spokesman accused Israel of “stealing” the gunboats and warned nations dealing with Israel that the latter “respects neither sovereignty nor legality).