PARIS, Oct. 10 (JTA) – Ever eager to increase its role in the Middle East peace process, France’s recent step into the fray has aggravated Israel and its own Jewish community.
Israel accused French President Jacques Chirac of single-handedly fouling up a provisional agreement to end the bloodshed reached during the brief summit last week in Paris between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
At the tense meeting brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Arafat seemed ready to initial an accord with Barak to halt the violence.
Yet in a courtesy call to Chirac by Arafat just moments before the two sides were to call for a cease-fire, Chirac reportedly lectured Arafat on how he should hold out for more and force the issue of an international inquiry into what caused the violence. Israel has refused such an inquiry, saying it gives Arafat an excuse not to continue peace talks and an international body would be biased against Israel
After returning to Israel on Oct. 5, Barak’s chief of staff, Danny Yatom, singled out Chirac’s alleged interference as what “turned this thing on its head.”
Barak later phoned the French president and warned him against encouraging “a revival of terrorism” by supporting Arafat’s demand, since “we know he is at the origin of the current terrorism” against Israel.
A Chirac spokesman called the claim “ridiculous” and insisted that during the Paris meeting “France pleaded for an appeasement and for the parties to reach an accord.”
From the first outbursts of violence, the French government has been quick to point its finger at Israeli Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon’s Sept. 28 visit to the Temple Mount as the cause of the Palestinian rage. France then led the European Commission in signing a resolution condemning the level of Israeli force against the Palestinians.
France has long made public its desire to play a larger role in the peace process. Although its official policy is to remain nonpartisan in Middle East affairs, France tends to be pro-Arab due to its large Islamic population and its long-standing friendship toward several Arab countries.
In the wake of the French government’s apparent partisanship, the French Jewish community demanded and received a meeting with Chirac last Sunday.
Since France was expected to play just a supporting role in the Paris talks, the accusation by Barak of Chirac’s meddling came as a surprise to French Jews.
Joseph Sitruk, France’s chief rabbi, told Israel Radio that Chirac had clearly taken the Palestinian side.
“We as Jews want to tell the president respectfully we don’t accept that,” Sitruk said.
Searching for further reasons as to why Chirac has favored the Palestinians, Chaim Musicant, executive director of CRIF – the umbrella group for secular French Jews – said the frequently broadcast images of wounded Palestinian children had caused an “emotional reaction” in France against Israel.
However, Musicant said, the use of children has been deliberate. “The Palestinians have changed their tactics. They have been using children on their front line. They are using children as weapons, a move which we haven’t seen since the intifada. We think the images have influenced France’s decisions.”
Compounding the Jewish community’s nervousness was news that violence was spreading at home, after a string of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents unraveled across the country during the week.
In a suburb north of Paris, a group of Arabs yelled “dirty Jews” at synagogue attendees. A Molotov cocktail was reportedly thrown at a kosher restaurant in Paris. And at a Paris protest led by pro-peace activists, several marchers cried “death to the Jews.”
In the meeting with Chirac, which was attended by several French Jewish leaders, Sitruk said, “There is a danger which threatens us inside our own country.”
Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, insisted to Chirac that France “maintain a balanced position. If it changes its role, that will be worse since Israel will no longer have confidence towards France and Europe.”
Chirac attempted to calm the Jewish delegation by stating he “understood their worry” and that “France continues to play a role for peace.”
But members of the French Jewish community said they would have to wait and see if Chirac acts on his stated nonpartisan intentions.
“In the coming days, if France takes any unilateral, pro-Palestinian positions, it will be evident that a turn has been taken,” Musicant said.
On Tuesday in Paris, more than 5,000 demonstrators, including representatives from all major French Jewish organizations, gathered for a rally to support Israel.
The barely organized crowd swarmed all over the Champs Elysees, stopping the rush-hour traffic. Then it swelled in front of the Israeli Embassy, chanting slogans such as “Vive L’Israel,” “Give back our soldiers,” and “Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”