Even Before He Arrives in Israel, French Envoy Starts on Wrong Foot

France’s new ambassador has yet to arrive in Tel Aviv, but already he has succeeded in antagonizing Israel’s political establishment and France’s Jewish community.

Gerard Araud was sharing his views on his new posting with Foreign Ministry colleagues last week over crudites and cocktails when he failed to notice an Israeli journalist carefully jotting down his reflections on the Middle East.

Waiting patiently for the ambassador to finish his musings, the journalist, Boaz Bismuth, politely introduced himself as the Paris correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, before asking Araud why he had repeatedly referred to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as “a thug” and described Israel as “a paranoid country.”

“But you don’t intend to publish that,” Araud reportedly said, as reported by Bismuth in Yediot on Sunday.

The comments surprised many of Israel’s supporters in France because Araud, unlike many of his predecessors, was considered friendly toward Israel and apparently had been handpicked by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin with the aim of improving relations between Paris and Jerusalem.

Moreover, the posting wasn’t Araud’s first mission in Tel Aviv: The diplomat began his career as a secretary in the embassy, where he was remembered fondly by his Israeli counterparts.

Once the remarks hit the Israeli media, French authorities sought to limit the damage.

“Gerard Araud denies in the most formal manner the collection of remarks attributed to him by an Israeli journalist regarding the State of Israel and its prime minister,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The cool formality of the denial, to say nothing of the lack of apology, failed to satisfy many, including Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat, who demanded that Israel refuse to accept Araud’s credentials.

A similar response came from Michel Darmon, president of the France-Israel Association, who said Araud’s comments are “very serious, insulting and undignified for an ambassador, particularly one who is going to Israel.”

Darmon added that he was surprised by Araud’s reported remarks, noting that “we know him and he has always been positive” toward Israel.

Araud is not the first French diplomat to suffer from off-the-cuff remarks during what he thought was a private occasion.

In De4cember 2001, Daniel Bernard, France’s ambassador to England, infamously described Israel as “that shitty little country” during a private dinner party — without noticing that the Jewish wife of the editor of The Daily Telegraph was present.

Semi-denials and, later, apologies were offered before Bernard was quietly reassigned to France’s embassy in Algeria — “certainly not a promotion,” as Darmon noted.

As for Bismuth, he acknowledged that he might have overstepped the mark by quoting a private conversation, though he still felt obligated to report it due to the severity of the remarks.

“What do they expect when they invite journalists to cocktails?” Bismuth told JTA. “This wasn’t a Quai d’Orsay closed event,” he said, referring to the Foreign Ministry address.

On the other hand, Israel’s Foreign Ministry and its embassy in Paris were keen to play down the affair. Israeli diplomatic circles in Paris hinted to JTA that the matter could be rectified by a quiet apology.

France’s Jewish community was less eager to let the incident pass, with the vice president of the Paris Consistoire, Samy Gozlan, writing to the Foreign Ministry asking that Araud be disciplined.

Darmon also said he would contact the Foreign Ministry, adding that “we’re checking with the lawyers as well.”

The revelations come during a difficult period in Franco-Israeli relations, with Paris seen as the major stumbling block in Israeli and U.S. attempts to persuade the European Union to widen its ban on the military wing of Hamas to include the group’s political arm.

There had been some positive movement recently toward support of a total ban on Hamas, Israeli Ambassador to France Nissim Zvilli told Israeli radio after meeting last week with French President Jacques Chirac’s principal diplomatic adviser, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne.

Zvilli said the change in the French position had come about following the Aug. 19 suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and had been the result of numerous meetings between embassy and Foreign Ministry officials.

Zvilli’s sudden appearance on Israel Radio came after publication of reports in the Israeli press that portrayed his meeting with Gourdault-Montagne in a more negative light.

According to the reports, Gourdault-Montagne had questioned whether Hamas and Islamic Jihad were terrorist organizations — though the actual comments were ambiguous.

“If the massacre and maiming of innocent Jewish babies and their parents in Jerusalem by an imam dispatched by Hamas isn’t sufficient proof that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are terrorist entities, we can only conclude that France is committed to continue its dangerous policy of insisting that these murderers have a legitimate role to play in the future,” wrote Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

De Villepin said this week that the French position would become clearer after he consulted with other European countries at a forthcoming summit of E.U. foreign ministers in Italy.

As for Araud, France’s Jewish community appeared far less forgiving.

The problem was not just Araud, Darmon said, noting that Alain Pierret, a former French ambassador to Israel, once had described the French Foreign Ministry as “a nest of anti-Semites.”

“It’s a mentality thing with the Quai d’Orsay. They’re just like the army chief of staff during the Dreyfus Affair,” said Darmon, a former army general. “It’s the same Catholic, right-wing sociological recruitment base.”

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