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Background Report France is Seeking to Improve Its Relations with Israel

December 7, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

France’s new Socialist Administration is moving fast ahead to improve France’s relations with both Israel and the Arab states on the basis of an even-handed policy in the Middle East.

Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson is scheduled to arrive in Israel tomorrow to lay the groundwork for the first visit ever made by a French President. Francois Mitterrand is expected to arrive in Israel in February to symbolize France’s new relationship with Israel.

Since his election last May, Mitterrand has tried and, up till now, succeeded in what seemed an impossible task: renew France’s former friendship with Israel while continuing the former Administration’s policy of close ties with the Arab countries and its backing of a Palestinian state.

Upon his election, Mitterrand was viewed with unconcealed suspicion by practicaly all the Arab world. He was known as a warm friend of Israel and a fervent backer of its right to ensure its security. The new President’s first meetings were with King Khaled of Saudi Arabia and the presidents of half a dozen Arab states.

During these meetings, he said some things which Israel did not appreciate, but adamantly stuck to his basic approach concerning Israel’s rights. He never varied one iota from this stand, not even during his recent visit to Algeria where he reiterated, while addressing the Parliament, Israel’s right to secure borders.


Both Cheysson and Mitterrand, during their forthcoming trips to Israel, will most probably balance this approach by calling for Palestinian participation in future peace talks and for the creation of a Palestinian state. Mitterrand’s goodwill has seemed so convincing up till now that Israel has accepted from him views and suggestions which would have been considered openly hostile coming from anyone else.

Both Premier Menachem Begin and some Labor Party leaders have tried to disassociate Mitterrand from the pro-Palestinian statements made by Cheysson. Last week Begin said in an interview with French television that “Mitterrand is our friend,” adding “the same cannot be said about his Foreign Minister.”

Whatever the French Foreign Minister’s own views might be, Cheysson only carries out presidential directives. If anything, Mitterrand has an even stronger grip on foreign affairs than his two predecessors, Presidents Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Georges Pompidou.

During Mitterrand’s visit to Israel and his forthcoming talks with Begin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he plans to make it clear, French sources say, that Cheysson only carries out the policies laid down by the Elysee.

Mitterrand’s trump card up till now has been his intimate knowledge of how Israel reacts and how the Jewish mind works. His old association with various Israeli leaders and his many Jewish friends have taught him the importance of symbols — the irritation caused by certain terms and gestures and the Jewish sensitivity to certain associations.

The new Socialist Administration, with the exception of Cheysson’s statements in Beirut last August has up till now avoided the pitfalls into which former Gaullist Administrations have fallen and which cost Giscard his electoral defeat. During his visit to Beirut, Cheysson called for Palestine Liberation Organization participation in future Mideast peace talks and affirmed that the Palestinians should be given the opportunity for self-determination. Also during his visit, Cheysson met with PLO chief Yasir Arafat.

In spite of the new “Mitterrand manner, ” France’s policy remains basically the same. It is warmer towards Israel and more understanding of Israel’s needs but, as it became apparent in last month’s joint declaration with Britain, Holland and Italy over the Sinai peacekeeping force, it continues to subscribe to the Venice Declaration issued by the Europeans in June 1980 which calls for the PLO’s inclusion in future peace talks and the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

What both Mitterrand and Cheysson plan to say, in varying terms — Mitterrand more tactfully, Cheysson more harshly — is that France continues to support the Camp David agreements but believes that these accords will soon reach the end of the road and new avenues should then be explored.


In spite of Mitterrand’s warm words and sincere friendship, it is at this stage that serious differences will develop in the relations between the two countries as Israel is convinced that the Camp David agreements should be the basis for all future peace developments and adamantly refuses to consider a PLO role in the process.

France, together with practically all of Western Europe, is already calling for the opening of a new diplomatic chapter after Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai next April. It will be Cheysson’s task, during his visit to Israel, to explain that France’s backing for this policy is not hostile to Israel.

But, as the Minister said in an interview with Le Monde, “motivated by the belief that Israel’s future depends on peace with all the Arab forces in the region (including the Palestinians) and its integration within the area,” it seems highly unlikely that Cheysson will succeed in convincing either Begin or the opposition.

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