The death of French President Georges Pompidou is certain to spell a change, some observers already say an improvement, in the tortuous path of Franco-Israeli relations. Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming Presidential elections, due to take place between April 22 and May 7, a new chapter will probably be opened in the history of Franco-Israeli ties.
Pompidou, who assumed the Presidency in 1969 at what was then thought to be the lowest ebb of Franco-Israeli relations, gave a further turn to the pro-Arab policy initiated by his predecessor. General Charles de Gaulle, on the eve on the Six-Day War. It was during Pompidou’s 5-year tenure of office that the French arms embargo became officially total, that France concluded an agreement for a massive sale of French-made war planes to Libya, that Paris tried to organize Europe into a pro-Arab bloc and that France openly courted and wooed the oil-rich Arab states.
Elysee watchers developed a number of theories over the years to explain the new turn in France’s policy in the Middle East. According to some, Pompidou realized that he lacked the personal prestige and charisma to try and play a mediator’s role in the Middle East. It was pointless even trying and, pragmatically, he adopted an open pro-Arab stance. According to others, he firmly believed that de Gaulle’s reading of the situation as a permanent invitation for a third world war was accurate.
He also believed de Gaulle was right in his judgement that peace can only come through mutual Arab-Israeli concessions–with Israel returning the territories occupied during the Six-Day War and the Arabs recognizing Israel and concluding a peace agreement.
IMPACT OF GUN BOATS. U.S. VISIT INCIDENTS
People who knew Pompidou well say that two factors contributed to give a personal turn to his pro-Arab stand. First, the Cherbourg affair, when Israeli commandos on X-Mas eve 1969. seized and took off with five Israeli-owned but French-embargoed gun boats lying in Cherbourg harbor, Pompidou, according to Elysee confidants, felt at the time that he had personally been turned into the laughing stock of France and all Europe. Many Israelis later felt that the possession of the five gun boats, ordered by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and negotiated by the Defense Ministry’s representative in France. Admiral Mordecai Limon, had not been worth the political price Israel later had to pay.
The second incident to have personally marked Pompidou occurred in Feb. 1970 when Jewish demonstrators protesting the French sale of 110 Mirage planes to Libya, booed and even physically Jostled the President and his wife during their trip to the United States. People close to Pompidou say that he never forgot the scene which occurred in the lobby of his Chicago hotel when he found himself surrounded by an aggressive Jewish crowd.
In recent years, while not changing the actual essence of his policy, Pompidou tried to improve the manner. On New Year’s Day 1971 he walked up to the Israeli Ambassador in Paris, Asher Ben Natan, in full view of the diplomatic corps and warmly greeted him with a loud “Shalom.” At a press conference in Jan. 1973, he officially announced that France was renouncing its demand for a resumption of the big four-power role on the Mideast.
Shortly before his death, he approved an exchange of visits between the Israeli and French Foreign Ministers. The Israeli Minister. Abba Eban, was to have arrived in Paris on his first official visit to France since 1967, on May 15 and Michel Jobert was due to visit Israel next Sept., the first French Minister to have ever paid a visit to the Jewish State. The President’s death leaves a political vacuum in France. The Gaullist majority is disunified and even split behind a number of possible contenders.
TWO OUTSTANDING CONTENDERS FOR PRESIDENCY
Two, however, stand out: former Premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas and Finance Minister Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Both are known to favor a friendlier attitude towards Israel. The friendlier of the two, and the politically more independent, is Chaban-Delmas. Pompidou’s first Prime Minister. A few days after Pompidou’s election to the Presidency and Cha ban’s appointment as Prime Minister, the former Premier said in an interview with Radio Europe Number One (June 27. 1969) that France may lift its arms embargo on Israel. It later became known that he was overruled by Pompidou on this point as the President, following de Gaulle’s precedent, defined all foreign affairs as his “personal domain.”
Throughout his term as Premier and after he was evicted by Pompidou two years ago. Chaban kept close contacts with Israeli diplomats and Jewish leaders in France. He openly and repeatedly stressed that he believes in a marked improvement in Franco-Israeli relations. Giscard d’Estaing. who represents the Gaullist Junior party in the government coalition, the Independent Republicans, has always expressed friendly sentiments toward Israel. His party’s secretary general. Health Minister Michel Poniatowsky, has consistently been one of Israel’s staunchest allies in the French political world.
The party in general and Giscard especially, are known, however, for their close ties with the French business lobby and the banking world. French banks and large corporations, Giscard’s main backers, have invested huge sums in the Arab world and have been in the forefront of the Franco-Arab rapprochement. Nonetheless, observers here believe that even Giscard would be an improvement over the policy Pompidou pursued.
HISTORY UNLIKELY TO BE REPEATED
The Left, the Socialist-Communist Alliance, is expected to present a sole candidate at least at the second round of the elections. He is practically certain to be Socialist Party First Secretary Francois Mitterrand. Though Mitterrand has openly expressed in the past pro-Israeli sentiments similar to those of other West European Socialist leaders such as Willy Brandt and Harold Wilson, few here can decide what his actual policy will be if elected. None can judge the weight the Communist Party will carry in a Socialist-Communist administration nor what will be the points on which the Communists will want to make their weight felt.
Among the other possible contenders who could appear at the first electoral round are such men as Reform Party leaders Jean le Canuet and Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber, interim President Alain Poher, and National Assembly President Edgar Faure. With the possible exception of Faure, none of them, according to political observers and recent public opinion polls, seem to stand even the lightest chance of running in the second round. All of them, however, are openly pro-Israeli and may thus make their weight and influence felt during the lengthy and intricate inter-party negotiating which precedes the major elections.
With what is expected to be a close neck-and-neck race between the Gaullist majority and the Left, every vote will count, and none of the two major contenders will be able to neglect the relative importance of the pro-Israeli electors which exist in all parties, including the Communist Party. But till the last moment, a dark horse a Pierre Messmer (Premier), a Jacques Chirac (Interior Minister) or a Jobert, all staunch Gaullists, could appear on the electoral scene. Even with them, however, a page seems to have been turned with Pompidou’s death–a page not likely to repeat itself in the foreseeable future.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.