PARIS (JTA) — In the French presidential campaign just concluded, discussion of foreign policy was largely forgotten. Nonetheless, Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, faces several critical global issues, among them the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
If France would like to play a role, she must rebuild the credibility that was diminished in January when the Paris Peace Conference concluded with declarative statements but no tangible results that might encourage the two parties to work toward peace. By internationalizing the conflict and leading the Palestinians to believe that they can avoid the negotiating table, the French initiative in effect slowed down an already lagging peace process.
France must appear as an honest broker, an impartial mediator that takes the concerns of both parties into consideration. And France must win back Israel’s trust — especially after deciding to exclude it from the January negotiations — by reaffirming the absolute necessity of ensuring Israel’s security within secure and recognized borders. Macron must approach his relationship with Israel with great care.
Earlier this month, France abstained from voting on the umpteenth UNESCO resolution aimed at denying the historical connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a number of other European countries (Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Greece and the Netherlands) made the decision to oppose the resolution, one that runs counter to the aim of achieving peace.
Is it not time for France to reconsider its position on this issue, to dare to oppose initiatives that strive to delegitimize Israel?
In 1967, President Charles de Gaulle officially ended the Franco-Israeli honeymoon period of the 1950s and early ’60s when he imposed an arms embargo on Israel just before the Six-Day War. He explained his decision at an infamous news conference in which he said Israelis were “an elite people, assertive and domineering.” David Ben-Gurion responded, “We do not harbor an ‘ardent ambition to conquer’ but rather a fervent faith and the vision of peace as described by our prophets.”
Fifty years later, there are vast possibilities for cooperation between France and Israel. The most obvious is the fight against terrorism. France is a target for attacks, and in that regard finds itself in a situation similar to Israel’s. It would make considerable sense to look to Israel for expertise in population preparedness and government resilience in order to combat this scourge.
In responding to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, France has adopted an uncompromising position in opposition to Tehran’s aggressive policies. Surely it would be in France’s best interests to align its strategy with that of Israel, a country similarly concerned by the Iranian threat, as well as with the new U.S. administration, which is eager to address the Iranian nuclear threat.
Moreover, Paris can help broker a rapprochement between Israel and Sunni Arab countries — powers that already engage in a discrete alliance rooted in distrust of Iran. In recent months, with the new American administration in place, there have been signs that such an implicit alliance is a real possibility. What remains unclear is whether France will rise to the occasion and play a key role in forming and bolstering this alliance against a common threat.
The election of Macron gives cause for optimism about the future of Franco-Israeli relations. His visit to Israel as minister of the economy sent the message that France is eager to renew cooperation. After all, as Macron has suggested, “French tech” and the “start-up nation” rank among the 10 most innovative economies in the world.
Furthermore, Macron proved himself a friend to Israel during the presidential campaign, opposing any boycott of the country or the recognition of a state of Palestine in the absence of any peace agreement.
As president-elect, Macron has already had discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who congratulated the new French leader on his triumph and highlighted the importance of cooperation between their two nations on counterterrorism initiatives.
Yet we cannot allow these hopeful signs to make us complacent. The history of French diplomacy over the past 50 years offers much evidence of dashed hopes.
At a time when U.S. plans for mediating between Israelis and Palestinians remain in doubt because President Donald Trump has yet to win the confidence of either party, and Germany’s relations with Israel have turned fraught, Paris has a window of opportunity to restore ties and benefit from cooperation with an Israel that can be its ally on many fronts.
Let’s hope that the new president will choose to renew a sincere, solid bond between France and Israel.
(Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is director and Julie Decroix is deputy director of the American Jewish Committee’s Europe Office.)