PARIS (Apr. 20)
Francois Zimeray always knew that his outspoken support of Israel was going to land in him in trouble come election time, but even he was unprepared for such a stinging rebuke from members of his party.
While his chances for a realistic spot on the Socialist Party list for France’s Northwest region already appeared slim, Zimeray aides said the legislator was stunned after he was dumped from the list altogether at an April 17 meeting of the party’s national council.
Zimeray was the only member of the Party of European Socialists, the principal opposition party in the European Parliament, consistently to back demands for an inquiry into alleged Palestinian Authority misuse of European Union funds. As such, Zimeray had been publicly called to task by Socialists in his home region of Normandy, many of whom thought he was acting contrary to party policy.
Last year, party members publicly dissociated themselves from Zimeray’s comparison of Palestinian school textbooks to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
That was part of Zimeray’s vociferous campaign against E.U. financial support of the Palestinian education system, where textbooks glorify violence and denigrate Jews and Israel.
Opposition to Zimeray also grew in the wake of a visit to the Middle East last fall by 170 legislators from across Europe organized by the Medbridge Strategy Center, a pro-Israel lobbying group that Zimeray set up.
The largest delegation of European parliamentarians to visit the region, the group met with King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The trip also allowed many politicians from Eastern Europe to learn about Israel.
However, back in Normandy — where Zimeray is president of the Greater Rouen metropolitan area, the region’s largest city — response to the trip was less positive. Articles in the local press described his meeting with Sharon as akin to embracing former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is on trial for war crimes.
The decision to drop him from the party list was “indicative of a lack of understanding about Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” Zimeray told JTA.
He said he would not resign in advance of the June 13 elections and would refuse to run as an independent.
“I’m not going to give them a present by resigning — and in the future I will return to the European Parliament as a Socialist deputy,” he said.
Zimeray’s demise has worried many Jewish leaders who also are likely to see Ilka Schroeder of Germany’s Green Party — another of the European Parliament’s few fierce critics of the Palestinian Authority — lose her seat.
Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, said it remained to be seen who would take the lead in the European Parliament in presenting a more balanced approach toward Israel.
Calling the Socialists’ decision “a serious error,” Cwajbenbaum said Zimeray’s role in the Parliament since 1999 had been “absolutely remarkable.”
“Francois Zimeray has saved the honor of European Socialists by engaging fully for dialogue and peace in the Middle East. He has taken courageous initiatives, which have often come in opposition to his own political family,” Cwajgenbaum said in an interview.
One initiative was to invite Israel’s former internal security chief, Ami Ayalon, and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh — who proposed principles for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord — to the European Parliament last September.
Zimeray insisted his views were dovish, but his detractors portrayed him as an apologist for Sharon.
Among them was Pascal Boniface, a former party adviser who had drawn the ire of French Jewish groups by advising party leaders to adopt a more stringent pro-Palestinian line in order to attract Muslim voters.
The Northwest region contains very few Jews, while it has sizeable Muslim populations in large cities.
In his book “Is one allowed to be anti-Zionist?” published last year, Boniface accused Zimeray of spending most of his time as a legislator “defending and relaying the policies of Ariel Sharon.”
“If he once again appears on the Socialist party list for the 2004 European elections, this will say that the latter with full knowledge has decided to send a supporter of Sharon to sit in” Parliament, Boniface added.
While internal battles between key figures in the Socialist Party undoubtedly played a role in Zimeray’s fall, there was little doubt among French Jews that Zimeray had been punished for his pro-Israel line.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews. “He is the only real friend of Israel among the Socialists in the European Parliament.”
The need to balance representation among the party’s different wings also played a role in the turn of events. Most notably, observers pointed out that former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius — Zimeray’s long-time political patron and the region’s leading party power broker — had chosen to place his most senior lieutenant, Henri Weber, in the regional list’s top slot, instead of Zimeray.
As someone on the right of the party and as a potential presidential candidate, Fabius was loathe to offend more radical Socialist elements by backing Zimeray.
A source close to Zimeray said Fabius had covered himself by choosing Weber, who like Zimeray is Jewish, though he isn’t close to the community.
The second spot on the list was destined for a member of a more radical faction, and two slots were reserved for women.
That made it a foregone conclusion that Zimeray wouldn’t return to Parliament, since the Socialists were expected to win no more than four seats in the 12-member Northwest region. Still, the fact that he was completely left off the 12-person list was seen as an additional rebuke.
Shira Ansky, who works for Zimeray’s Brussels’ office, said it represented a desire by the Socialists “to bury the issue.”