President Francois Mitterrand told the Knesset today that the position of France in the Middle East is predicated on Israel’s fundamental “right to live” but it is a right, he declared, which cannot be denied to the Palestinians. They cannot be expected to give up this right, he asserted.
Mitterrand’s address to the Knesset, the highlight of his three-day visit to Israel which began yesterday, summarized both the point of his trip here and the course his Socialist government can be expected to follow in the Middle East. He came to Israel to end the coolness, often bordering on hostility, which had characterized France-Israeli relations during the administrations of Charles de Gaulle and his successors.
At the same time, he emphasized that while France does not presume to preach to the nations of the Middle East which must work out their own solution, he believes the Palestinians must be given a homeland. (See related story P. 3.)
BEGIN OFFERS LENGTHY RESPONSE
Premier Menachem Begin offered a lengthy, emotional response. There is now a “basis for hope” that under Mitterrand the strains between France and Israel would end. “But there are obstacles… chief among them France’s support for a Palestinian state,” Begin declared.
He followed that statement with a bitter, scathing attack on Mitterrand’s Foreign Minister, Claude Cheysson — who is accompanying the President in Israel — for having said on recent visits to Arab countries that he viewed the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
The Mitterrand-Begin exchange during the packed festive special session of the Knesset today echoed the differences expressed by the two leaders in their private conversation yesterday, shortly after Mitterrand arrived in Jerusalem. Despite claims by Israeli spokesmen that Begin’s presentation of Israel’s positions had left the French leader “very impressed,” informed French sources insisted that Mitterrand, in his questions and remarks during their meeting, made clear to Begin his own belief that the autonomy proposal for the Palestinians, advanced by Israel, was “a non-starter” mainly because the West Bank and Gaza populations rejected it.
SHARP DIFFERENCES NO SURPRISE
But the sharp differences between Mitterrand and his host over the Palestinian issue came as no surprise to either leader and were not allowed to mar the historic significance of the occasion. Mitterrand is the first French chief of state ever to visit Israel. Although he has been in Israel several times in the past, it was not in the capacity of President of France. He is regarded as a strong, sincere friend of the Jewish State.
As he declared in his Knesset speech, “The time has come after a too-long absence” for the dialogue to be resumed at the highest levels. After a period of “alienation,” the two countries “must start afresh,” he said.
Begin concurred, asserting that Mitterrand’s visit marked an end to the period of “unilateral love” of France on Israel’s part which was not reciprocated by Paris.
Mitterrand spoke to the Knesset in French, with simultaneous translation into Hebrew. To many observers, his speech recalled the historic address of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the Knesset in November, 1977. Today, as then, there was an outpouring of warmth for the man coupled with deep-seated reservations over the solutions he proposed.
Mitterrand insisted that the Palestinians must be entitled to decide their own fate, provided that they respect the rights of others (Israel) and abandon violence in favor of dialogue. He said France did not intend “to come in place of the nations involved” in the conflict or to preach or praise or condemn. But France is certainty one of those states which, because of her status and historical ties to the region and friendship with its peoples, sought to study the core of the dispute with a view to being helpful in its solution, he said.
STRESSES UNWAVERING FRIENDSHIP FOR ISRAEL
Mitterrand stressed his unwavering friendship to Israel throughout his career and his sympathy for its aspirations. He observed that there was no inconsistency in his positions. He supported the Camp David accords in 1977, opposed the European Community’s Venice declaration in 1980 which sought an “impracticable” solution. In 1981, as President, he was determined to end any French compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel. In 1982, he supports French participation in the Sinai peacekeeping force.
His visit to Israel is another link in the change of France’s attitude, Mitterrand said. Noting that he spoke “in the same language” to all the parties, he declared: “That is why I am proposing a homeland for the West Bank and Gaza people … Because they cannot be asked to forgo that right.” He urged, in effect, mutual recognition by Israel and the Palestinians. He added that it was not for him to determine who represented the Palestinians.
The PLO could hardly demand a place at the negotiating table while continuing to oppose Israel’s right to exist, he said. He spoke against “unilateral actions” and “pre-determination of borders,” an apparent reference to Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights last December. He recalled that when Sadat come to Jerusalem in 1977, Begin himself had declared that everything was negotiable.
Mitterrand warned that if the Palestinian problem remained unresolved, disaster could overtake the region because the superpowers, naturally looked toward areas of instability and strife for opportunities to wield their own strength and influence and could thus trigger a world conflict.
With respect to Jerusalem, the French President noted that in Hebrew the name meant city of peace.
His hope, he said, was that “one day all disunited brothers will come together in this city.” He closed his address in Hebrew, wishing long life to Israel and all nations of the area, and “Shalom.”
BEGIN SEES BASIS FOR HOPE
Begin opened his response — speaking in Hebrew which was translated into French — with a lengthy discourse on the Dreyfus affair which, he said came to be regarded by Jews and Zionists as on epic struggle between the forces of good and evil in France. Had Mitterrand been alive then, he would surely have “marched alongside Zola and Clemenceau” in that fight.
He traced the ups and downs of French-Jewish relationships, dwelling on the “black days” of the Vichy regime during World War II and the prolonged freeze that followed the Six-Day War. Now there is “a basis for hope” that under Mitterrand “the situation will be fundamentally changed” for he was a long-time friend “and he will surely strive for a renewal of the friendship and alliance,” Begin said.
But the Israeli Premier dwelt at length on the “obstacle” — French support for a Palestinian state — and passionately defended Israel’s offer of autonomy to the Palestinians which Mitterrand had characterized as a dead end.
WARNS AGAINST A PALESTINIAN STATE
“I ask, what is wrong with the proposal for full autonomy?” Begin said. He enumerated the areas of civic responsibility which the Israeli plan would confer on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under this plan, he declared, they would enjoy self-rule such as they never had under Turkish, British, Jordanian or Egyptian governance.
He warned that a Palestinian state posed a mortal danger “to our existence” as it would be a Soviet satellite with Russian cannons and rockets in possession of the PLO. “Will France, champion of justice, support this proposal that threatens our elimination?” Begin asked.
He maintained that there was neither “justice nor symmetry” in the idea that the Palestinians should have a state because the Jews have one. There are 21 sovereign Arab states over 12 million square kilometers. “Do we need a 22nd that will seek to spill our blood day and night?” he thundered.
Begin said he was deliberately asking rhetorical questions which, he hoped, would “echo in the French Parliament, in the media, in the press and in the Elysee Palace, residence of our dear friend, President Francois Mitterrand.” The Premier added that “our faith is that justice will triumph” and the “obstacles will be removed from the friendship between France and Israel that is so very dear to us.”
PERES RESPONDS TO MITTERRAND
Also responding to Mitterrand in the Knesset was Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Alignment, a close friend of the French President and a comrade in the Socialist International. Mitterrand, Peres said, was not locked into any particular solution for the Middle East and knew, moreover, that a one-step solution was unrealistic.
There were differences, of course, Peres acknowledged, over the PLO, for example, which the Labor leader called a disaster for the Palestinians themselves. But these differences need not cause “a short-circuit in the dialogue” with Mitterrand, a dialogue which Israeli Socialists have. participated in for years, he said.
Peres outlined the Labor Party’s program, which includes a desire not to rule over another nation and not to evolve into a binational state which annexation would lead to.
“Tell your people,” Peres said addressing Mitterrand, “that we are by no means indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians … But they, too, must find on honorable compromise …” He urged the Jordanians and the West Bank and Gaza inhabitants to join the peace talks. He said Mitterrand’s visit, hopefully, would open a “new page” in France’s relationship with Israel. It is no ordinary diplomatic act but perhaps “a return to the golden days,” Peres said.
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