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Nicolas Sarkozy: A True Friend of Israel?

Friday, June 27, 2008

PARIS -- "Nicolas Sarkozy: A Demanding Friend of Israel" Thus ran the headline on Tuesday's edition of the French daily Le Figaro, a day after Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French president to address the Israeli Knesset since François Mitterrand in 1982. In his speech (French link), Sarkozy himself insisted that he was a friend of Israel -- even a "dear and steadfast" friend -- and the tone was indeed friendly.

"France will always be at Israel's side when its security and its existence are threatened," he said, ". . . I have always felt this from the bottom of my heart and I will never compromise on it." And then he added in an allusion to Iran: "And those who scandalously call for the destruction of Israel will always find France blocking their way." Sarkozy characterized himself as a friend of Israel no less than four times in the speech and described France as a whole as Israel's "friend" another three times. It was clear, however, that so much emphasis was placed on this self-avowed friendliness precisely in order to demand what Sarkozy himself admitted would be "painful" concessions from Israel: most notably, a stop to settlement activity and the recognition of Jerusalem as a divided city serving as capital to both Israel and a Palestinian state.

The very next day, moreover, during a joint press conference in Bethlehem with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Sarkozy's tone was significantly less friendly -- toward Israel, at any rate. Indeed, Sarkozy went so far as to employ one of the stock motifs of contemporary "anti-Zionism": drawing a moral equivalence between the "injustice" done to "the Jewish people" -- presumably a reference to the Holocaust -- and the "injustice" allegedly done by Israel to the Palestinians and darkly insinuating that in the minds of Israelis the two were somehow related. "I told our Israeli friends," Sarkozy said sternly, "that one won't resolve the injustice done to the Jewish people by creating the conditions of an injustice for the Palestinian people."

If Sarkozy did indeed say this to his "Israeli friends," he did not do so in the Knesset, where such words would undoubtedly have provoked a scandal. "The state of Israel is a response to the injustice that the Jewish people suffered for so long," he said simply in his Knesset speech, without venturing any risky parallels, "And this injustice . . . represents a challenge: a challenge to the conscience of each and everyone [la conscience universelle]." Moreover, in the Knesset he also made the following observation: "My dear friends, I want to tell you something: I have no right to give anyone any lessons and I do not want to give you any" -- an observation that he had apparently forgotten by the time he arrived in Bethlehem the next day.

As reported on the French news site JDD.fr, in Bethlehem Sarkozy also criticized the West Bank security barrier constructed by Israel: a point that calls into doubt the sincerity of his previous day's assertion that he would "never compromise" on Israeli security. One "does not protect oneself with a wall," Sarkozy said referring to the barrier -- which is in fact for the most part a fence and not a "wall." By all accounts, Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel have dropped drastically since the construction of the barrier was undertaken. According to Israeli government statistics, the number of Israelis killed in terrorist attacks has dropped from a high of 426 in 2002 to 13 in 2007. The number of suicide attacks dropped from 60 to one. Sarkozy continued: "I want to say to the Israelis: Do you believe that this wall will guarantee your security for all time? Nobody can think that. What will guaranty the security of Israel is a Palestinian state." As so happens, the Israeli government has always maintained that the security barrier is a temporary measure to assure Israeli security until such time as a peace settlement can be reached.

Sarkozy did have harsh words for Hamas in his press conference with Mahmoud Abbas. "France," he said, "holds talks with the brave men and women who engage in politics and not in terrorism. France talks with men of peace and not with people who set off bombs." Hamas predictably took umbrage at the remarks, with Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri noting (French link) that "Sarkozy knows perfectly well that there are high level contacts between France and the Hamas movement . . ." In May, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed that the French government had had contacts with Hamas.

John Rosenthal is a World Politics Review contributing editor.