Ooh Lah Lah! France and Israel Create Foundation for Cooperation

After years of sometimes frosty relations, Israel and France have organized a foundation to promote cooperation. The Fondation France-Israel is a direct result of the visit by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to France in July 2005. After a joint decision by Sharon and French President Jacques Chirac, it was launched earlier this month during a series of conferences in Paris, meant to provide an official umbrella structure for cooperation in high-tech investment, research, industry, cinema and exchanges among young adults.

“This week of conferences is laying the groundwork for developing cooperation between France and Israel,” said Diane Binder, managing director of the foundation, “and also for putting the spotlight on ongoing research and investment.”

Binder said this may be the first time that French-Israeli cooperation is not going through France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, which already has an active connection with Israel.

“The foundation goes way beyond working with the Jewish community here in France,” she said. “The bottom line is about changing the image of Israel for the French people.

“Most of the French have an image of Israel as an occupier. Without getting involved in the politics, there is a tremendous need to change that image.”

Funding has come directly from the French and Israeli foreign ministries, city councils in both countries and a limited amount of private investment.

The first day of conferences focused on high-tech investment. Daniel Rouach, a management professor at the ESCP-EAP business school in Paris who organizes regular student exchanges with the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, noted that politics are catching up with investment realities.

“Major French groups such as Alcatel, Dassault and Veolia have begun investing in Israeli industries,” he said, “and French business school graduates are doing training sessions in Israel on how to put together high-tech startups. This foundation is an indication that the politics between both countries are being normalized. Frankly, it was about time.”

Israelvalley, a business Web site launched by Rouach, indicated that French exports to Israel in 2005 hit about $1 billion, less than exports to Israel from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Turkey.

“This is a direct result of the strained politics between France and Israel,” Rouach said.

At the height of the intifada, Chirac was shown on French television being jostled by Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem, and pushing them in turn. The soldiers were there to protect him from crowds of Palestinians in the Old City who, in fact, saw him as their protector.

During the waves of anti-Semitic attacks in and around Paris that accompanied the intifada, Sharon called France an anti-Semitic country and urged French Jews “to pack your bags and come to Israel.” Some 3,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel in 2005, a record high since the early 1970s.

Even during the rough times, however, research and investment were ongoing.

For example, a major French-based European bank, BNP-Paribas, just opened its first branch office in Tel Aviv for private and business banking.

The bank’s general manager in Tel Aviv, Charles Reisman, noted, “it’s all in the timing. Israel’s train is coming in. I think this foundation is recognition of that.”

On a visit to Paris, Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank Israel, said the foundation “is meant to improve the images of both countries. For the French Foreign Ministry, this is a big change.”

The president of the foundation, Jacques Huntzinger, a former French ambassador to Israel, was pleased.

“We are recreating the networks that existed in the 1950s and ’60s in research and business,” he said. “There has been cooperation, but it has been quiet, without government backing. Now it is official.”

There was little mention of politics at the conferences, and no one bothered to mention that it was France that helped Israel build its nuclear plant outside Dimona in the Negev Desert in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jean-Claude Hirel, who is on the foundation’s economic cooperation commission, said, “this is the first time since 1967 that the French Foreign Ministry has been involved like this. It is a real political change for France. As far as the effects on business and on people go, it will take time, but it is the right direction.”

The film industry is one example of major cooperation. There were 14 Israeli-French co-productions in the past year, compared to five that Israel did with Germany, two with Canada and one with Australia. There were none with the United States.

“We cannot make films in Israel without public money,” said Katriel Shori, head of the Israel Film Fund, “and this foundation will strengthen our position.”

The conference also featured a photo exhibit documenting 60 years of French-Israeli relations, open to the public until June 3 at the mayor’s office of the 20th District.

The battle for public recognition is already an uphill one. The foundation assigned the communications work to a major public relations firm. The brochures were glossy, but aside from the Jewish press and radio in Paris, the mainstream press seemed uninterested.

Binder was disappointed but unfazed. She is already working on a June visit to Paris by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the opening of a French cultural center in Tel Aviv in November.

Can the foundation ease some of the tension for Jews in France?

“I think that would happen if we can change Israel’s image in the eyes of the French, including the French Maghrebi Arabs,” said Binder, referring to Arabs of North African origin. “And perhaps one day we could work on dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Not now, but one day. There is so much to do.”

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