PARIS, April 30 (JTA) – A series of sharp verbal exchanges between French and Israeli diplomats has prompted Jewish leaders here to criticize the French government.
The most recent cause for alarm in bilateral relations that seem to be deteriorating quickly came during French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine’s weekend visit to Lebanon and Syria, where he made pointed remarks criticizing the Israeli government.
On several occasions, Vedrine took the opportunity to denounce the “aggressive politics” of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
At the same time, Vedrine appeared to support Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement.
Hezbollah has continued attacking Israel even after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon last May, citing the continued occupation of Shabaa Farms, a part of the Golan Heights that Israel conquered from Syria in 1967.
Vedrine supported Hezbollah’s demand that Israel withdraw from Shabaa Farms – despite repeated statements by U.N. officials that the land is not Lebanese and that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon is complete.
French Jewish leaders condemned Vedrine’s statements.
“We cannot accept that France would recognize Hezbollah as a resistance movement,” said Chaim Musicant, executive director of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations.
“Hezbollah is a movement against the Israeli people. It is not a resistance movement.”
Although its official policy is to remain nonpartisan in Middle East affairs, France has a generally pro-Arab tilt due to its large Islamic population and its long-standing friendship with several Arab countries.
Last October, for example, at the end of a Paris summit meeting designed to put an end to the then-young intifada, Israel charged that French President Jacques Chirac essentially convinced Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to walk away from a cease-fire agreement reached after arduous negotiations and to hold out instead for a better deal. Half a year later, the violence continues.
Some observers contend that France’s pro-Arab position has less to do with ideological commitment to the Arab cause than a desire to win friends – and, more importantly, business – in the Arab world.
Vedrine’s comments over the weekend dovetailed with a growing stream of anti-Israel stances from the French government.
In recent weeks, a coalition of E.U. countries led by France has been pushing the European Union to suspend Israel’s privileged trade status with Europe, which is worth millions of dollars to the Jewish state.
Such a proposition is unlikely to pass, but the European Union may suspend the favored trade status offered to Israeli goods produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
French Jewish leaders bridle at their government’s anti-Israel statements, but they are even angrier that France does not speak out against Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli targets.
“Europe has never understood that it needs to remain neutral in its policy toward the Middle East,” said Musicant. “If France does not play an active role in condemning Palestinian acts of terrorism, it cannot have a positive role” in the peace process.
Musicant added that France should balance its criticisms of Israel by closely monitoring the aid the European Union gives to the Palestinian Authority. Critics long have charged that much of the E.U. aid is siphoned off by Arafat’s cronies.
Symptomatic of the French Jewish community’s frustration with the current administration, a recent scuffle arose when Israel’s ambassador to France, Eli Barnavi, was quoted in the bimonthly Jewish newspaper La Tribune Juive as saying that France had disappointed him and was showing bias and a “terrible lack of judgment.”
French wire services quickly picked up the remark, which prompted the ambassador’s office to issue a statement denying the comments.
A review of the interviewer’s tapes revealed that Barnavi indeed had been misquoted. The damage already had been done, however, as French officials already had been pressed to respond to the incident.
But the editor of La Tribune Juive later insisted the overall sense of the interview was correct.
“We maintain that we did our work properly,” editor Olivier Guland said. “Basically, Ambassador Barnavi said in plain words what every Israeli is thinking about the openly pro-Arab position of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”