“I do not know exactly why, but now it seems that the political horizon is clearing up, here and there, in the wide-open, friends can be seen lifting their heads, and instead of the utmost rage, there is a need to say something, neither coherent nor obscure, to her, to France” – Nathan Alterman, an Israeli poet, in a song to France, 1957.
The Israeli-French relationship flourished in the mid-1950s, as Jerusalem emerged as an important customer of the French arms industry. These military relations evolved due to an American arms embargo imposed on Israel at the time and because of an Egyptian mass purchase of Soviet weapons. The bilateral ties were not solely commercial-based; the French were dealing with the Algerian struggle for independence, and hence Paris shared a strategic interest with Jerusalem in battling radical Arab nationalism. One should bear in mind that in 1956, in the Suez war, Israel and France fought together against Egypt, which trained Algerian rebels and provided them with arms and money. The cooperation was even extended to building a nuclear installation in the Israeli desert during the late 1950s.
After the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day war, Paris changed its approach towards Jerusalem. France began adopting policies favoring the oil-rich Arab world, which at the time meant abandoning the Jewish state. Despite Egyptian and Syrian aggression, France imposed a regional arms embargo, which chiefly affected Israel. After 1967, Paris supplied advanced weapons to Arab states hostile to Israel, sought oil deals with the Arab world, established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1974 while disregarding its involvement in terrorism, and assisted Iraq in building a nuclear reactor.
Since 1967, it is no secret that France’s foreign policy has been pro-Arab. There are a number of domestic and historical factors that has been contributing to this governmental policy; France is home to an estimated six and half million Muslims (out of a population of 66 million) who primarily originate from Algeria and other French colonies in North Africa. France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union. In addition, the existence of anti-Semitism in the country contributes to the pro-Arab policy. While the Alfred Dreyfus affair and the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Third Reich are distant memories, 2012 saw 614 anti-Semitic incidents. According to a recent survey, approximately two-thirds of Jews living in France fear verbal or physical assault. Moreover, France’s special interest in the Muslim world is a product of being a former “protector” or colonizer of many territories with majority Muslim populations, such as Egypt (1798), Algeria (1830), West Africa (1880), Tunisia (1881), Morocco (1912), and Syria and Lebanon (1920). Naturally, a governmental policy of giving nearly automatic support to the enemies of Israel created constant frictions between Jerusalem and Paris.
A change in the Israeli-French defense relations occurred at the beginning of the 1990-s, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the renewal of the peace process between Israel and Arab states. The countries began conducting security consultations and official visits. Another improvement in the relationship was initiated in 2003, with the signing of a detailed plan to cooperate in fields such as commerce, economy, culture and science. When Nicolas Sarkozy, whose grandfather was Jewish, was elected in May 2007 as the President of France, relations with Israel were strengthened. Sarkozy has conducted a proactive foreign policy and was determined for France to shape international agenda. During his tenure, he pushed France back to Europe and renewed France’s relationship with Africa as well as the Middle East. Besides supporting Israel’s bid to have closer relations with the EU and initiating the establishment of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), he was also very much aware of the mutual perceptions between Paris and Jerusalem about issues such as curtailing Iranian nuclear ambitions and fighting against international Islamist terrorist movements.
The improved bilateral relations have not, however, alleviated the disagreements regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paris still believes that a two-state solution as designed by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 is the only viable solution to the conflict, which means creating a Palestinian state on the territories that Israel allegedly occupies. Furthermore, the closer relations with the Jewish state have not changed France’s policy of supporting the Palestinian Authority – economically and politically.
It seems that the Israeli-French relations have reached their current peak with the high-profile visit of the President of France, Francois Hollande, in Israel in November 2013. Israel gave the French head of state the red-carpet treatment, mostly because of France’s hard-line position vis-à-vis the negotiations with Iran. At the same time, Israel is not the only country in the region that has won France’s attention recently due to a growing convergence of strategic interests. France’s ties with regional Sunni-majority states, such as Qatar, the Emirates, and its major defense client Saudi Arabia, have been further cemented because of Paris’ tough stance towards Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria and towards the nuclear ambitions of the largest Shia country in the world.
The Israeli government must take advantage of the shared security interests and build a strategic Franco-Israeli alliance. When doing so, Jerusalem should be mindful not to tip the delicate balance of its relations with the United States, its indispensible ally. Therefore, the Israeli government should:
a) Increase the security collaboration and intelligence sharing with regards to Iran’s nuclear activities – On 18 February, Iran and the P5+1 will hold a new round of talks in Vienna to discuss a comprehensive agreement in an attempt to allay concerns regarding the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. These negotiations are set to be the next phase of an interim deal that was reached on 24 November 2013. France, which has long established itself as the guardian of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and its disarmament mandates, adopted a hard line position in the talks with Iran. France showed firm opposition to any interim deal unless the Islamic Republic accepts a full suspension of activity at the heavy water reactor in Arak and the downgrading of its stockpile of enriched uranium from 20% to 5%. This is the same France that supplied the Iranian Shah with the technology and equipment to build a uranium enrichment facility, and the same France which 35 years ago provided asylum and hospitality to Ayatollah Khomeini before he returned to Tehran on a special Air France flight in order to lead the Islamic revolution.
Israel needs France’s distinctive voice in the upcoming nuclear talks to articulate its national interests that are ultimately in line with Jerusalem’s own perceptions of the situation Therefore, it is critical that Israel and France increase security collaboration and intelligence sharing regarding Tehran’s nuclear activities. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government should be aware that if the talks fail and a military strike is indeed required, Paris has shown in recent years that it is capable and comfortable with the use of military force – in Libya (2011), Ivory Coast (2011), Mali (2013), and the Central African Republic (2013).
b) Coordinate a policy regarding Syria which reflects mutual security concerns – As the second round of the fragile peace process backed by the U.N. is taking place at the moment in Geneva, Jerusalem could use a strong European partner to coordinate a policy which reflects Israel’s security interests. This is especially needed since Israel opted to be excluded from the Geneva Peace Conference, despite its major stake in the resolution of the conflict as well as with regards to the Israel-Syria Separation of Forces Agreement, which has been in place since 1974. Last week, in an interview with Time Magazine, Hollande stated France’s aspirations regarding Syria’s future by saying: “Our only goal is to strengthen the opposition and to avoid the dilemma whereby we only have the choice between Bashar Assad and al-Qaeda.” We should bear in mind that Hollande has almost been the only Western leader to express straightforward support for a U.S.-led punitive military strike against Assad’s regime. Hollande’s stated goal is very similar to the Israeli belief that a victory of the Alawi Assad regime would in fact be a successful achievement of the regional Shiite axis led by Iran, and that a victory of an al Qaeda affiliate – Jabhat al-Nusra – or the jihadist ISIS would pose an imminent threat in the Middle East.