PARIS (JTA) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with leaders of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF to reassure them of his support for Israel.
The Nov. 23 meeting comes following reports that Sarkozy called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar” during a conversation with President Obama at the G20 conference earlier this month.
Sarkozy “responded to a lot of our concerns,” said CRIF treasurer Francis Kalifat, who attended the intimate lunch that also included CRIF President Richard Prasquier and France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, among others.
The concerns include Israel’s security and France’s recent vote in favor of Palestinian UNESCO membership, as well as reports of a private conversation between Sarkozy and President Obama in which journalists overheard Sarkozy calling Netanyahu a “liar.”
“The president reaffirmed his friendship and support for the State of Israel from the very beginning of our conversation," Kalifat said. "He wanted to remind us that throughout his political career he has had a profound attachment to Israel."
Kalifat said Sarkozy also spoke of his “strong, long relationship and friendship with Netanyahu and his family,” and “expressed his firm desire to move beyond the misunderstanding following an off-record conversation.”
Kalifat said Sarkozy gave the group “certain explanations” for the recent conversation with Obama, in which both leaders did not realize that they were speaking into microphones that were turned on, allowing several journalists to hear three minutes of the conversation in an adjoining room. Sarkozy has said his words were taken out of context.
“We told him about our questions and preoccupations, notably concerning France’s UNESCO vote, and we talked about the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership,” said Kalifat, who explained that French Jews were especially worried about the status of Jewish cultural sites on Palestinian territory, which they hope will remain accessible and “not transformed into mosques.”
The French president “said in a firm manner that there was no question France would accept that kind of thing,” Kalifat said. “They would do everything to block any downplaying of the Jewish presence and characteristic” of cultural sites, such as Rachel’s Tomb.
Concerning a Palestinian bid for U.N. membership, Sarkozy said France would only support the idea of a "non-member observer state" status for the territories, but under strict conditions that included Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a return to bilateral negotiations without preconditions, recognition of Israel’s security requirements and a promise not to submit lawsuits against Israel in international courts.