Netanyahu in Paris: The Holocaust, Friendships, and Disagreements

, July 27, 2017

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 17, No. 20

  • Prime Minister Netanyahu’s July 16, 2017, visit to Paris was undoubtedly a success. It encompassed two main events: the ceremony in commemoration of the Holocaust and the working meeting at the Élysée Palace.
  • During the meeting, the two leaders decided on closer cooperation in fighting radical Islamic terror. Undoubtedly, Macron now understands better that the terror against Israelis in Jerusalem and against the French in Paris or Nice is actually the same terror.
  • As movements and individual voices increasingly call to boycott Israel, Macron stated unequivocally and for the first time by a French president, that “anti-Zionism is a reinvented form of classic anti-Semitism.” It was unquestionably a strong assertion, making clear that anyone who delegitimizes the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel is, in fact, a racist and an anti-Semite.
  • President Macron is continuing the policy of his predecessors on the Palestinian issue. However, Macron broke new ground by coming out against the Palestinian leadership’s demand for the return of the refugees.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Emmanuel Macron

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Emmanuel Macron hold a joint press conference at the ֹÉlysée Palace in Paris
(Haim Zach, Israel Government Press Office)

Every day, the new president, Emmanuel Macron, manages to do something surprising. The French leader, who took up residence in the presidential palace on May 14, 2017, has shown that he quickly learns all the issues in the foreign and domestic realms and that shoring up France’s image among the nations of the world does not require great, long-term political experience. 

Macron has held working meetings with several leaders – including Chancellor Merkel, Presidents Putin and Trump, as well as Mahmoud Abbas, who came especially for an official visit to Paris.

The visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, was different and unique. It was not typical of the sort of relations Paris maintains with the other countries of the world. Paris, like Germany, has a dark past and a painful history, and the wounds have not yet healed. The World War II Vichy regime not only submitted to the Nazis but also collaborated with the annihilation of the Jewish people. There were French policemen who arrested and humiliated French Jews, pushing them on the path to the extermination camps.

French police escort Jewish men to deportation trains at the Austerlitz station. Paris, France.

French police escort Jewish men to deportation trains at the Austerlitz station.
Paris, France. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The presence of the Israeli prime minister with the current president of France, at a ceremony to mark 75 years since the massive deportation, symbolizes more than anything that “Am Yisrael Chai” – “The people of Israel live.” It proves that, unlike in the past, the French Jewish community has, like all the Jews of the Diaspora, an independent and sovereign country for refuge that can fight and defend itself against any enemy.

However, intellectuals, far-left parties and movements, and parts of the media do not view the close and natural relationship between French Jewry and Israel with equanimity. Many demonstrated against the visit, joining the chorus of pro-Palestinian organizations that demanded a boycott of Israel and dubbed Netanyahu a war criminal. Lamentably and infuriatingly, those denouncing the visit also included some former Israeli diplomats and an Israeli historian, Zeev Sternhell, who did not shrink from saying in a lengthy opinion column in Le Monde that “Netanyahu heads a government more extreme than the National Front in France.” Sternhell harshly attacked the Israeli government’s policy, which in his view is leading to “destruction.” He indirectly compared a proposed Knesset nation-state bill with the Vichy regime, saying that Netanyahu knows only the “language of force and is not at all moral.” He called on the French president “to stand firm against Netanyahu’s demands to forgo the establishment of a Palestinian state.” Sternhell’s words, and those of others like him, resonate for the BDS movements and the Communist Party and indeed eggs them on in their struggle.

Under such circumstances, Israel’s public-diplomacy campaign in France has been damaged. It is hard to wage the struggle when Jewish activists of the far left, as well as Israelis, take to the media to vilify the Netanyahu government and vent their antagonism toward it.

A Successful Visit

Netanyahu’s visit to Paris was undoubtedly a success. It encompassed two main events: the ceremony in commemoration of the Holocaust and the working meeting at the Élysée Palace.

Ceremony in France, Netanyahu laying a wreath.

Ceremony in France, Netanyahu laying a wreath.
(Haim Zach, Israel Government Press Office)

The Ceremony to Mark 75 Years since the Roundup and Deportation of the Jews of France

The ceremony was impressive and moving. It was held only days after the death of former French minister Simone Weil, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Weil became a symbol, and as an extraordinary tribute, she will be laid to rest in the Panthéon. She was the first president of the European Parliament.

From the end of the Second World War until 1995, all the presidents of France, including General De Gaulle who fought the Nazis, refused to recognize the French Republic’s responsibility for the Vichy regime’s criminal acts and collaboration with the German enemy. Only after heavy pressures by the leaders of the Jewish community did President Jacques Chirac see fit to acknowledge, on July 16, 1995, the Republic’s culpability for the acts against the Jews. The subsequent presidents, Sarkozy and Hollande, have likewise acknowledged it.

In the ceremony held this week in the presence of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Macron went far so far as to say that, despite misconceptions, “not a single German took part in the roundup of the Jews; they were all French officials and policemen who were sent on the orders of the Vichy regime.”

“Anti-Zionism Is a Reinvented Form of Classic Anti-Semitism”

As movements and individual voices increasingly call to boycott Israel, Macron stated unequivocally, and for the first time by a French president, that “anti-Zionism is a reinvented form of classic anti-Semitism.” It was unquestionably a strong assertion, making clear that anyone who delegitimizes the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel is a racist and an anti-Semite. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who enthusiastically praised the statement, emphasized, “Israel’s power is the guarantee that there will not be another Holocaust.”

The Jewish community also welcomed President Macron’s reference to the savage murder of a Jewish resident of Paris, Sarah Halimi, by her Muslim neighbor; so far, the prosecution has refused to treat the murder as an act with anti-Semitic overtones. This phenomenon is worrisome and frequently recurs since the French authorities are leery of clearly defining what constitutes an anti-Semitic act or who is a terrorist. Instead, they usually relate to these acts as criminal. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President of France Macron honoring the memory of French Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President of France Macron honoring the memory of French Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.
(Haim Zach, Israel Government Press Office)

The Meeting at the Élysée Palace

During this meeting, the two leaders decided on closer cooperation in fighting radical Islamic terror. Undoubtedly, Macron now understands better that the terror against Israelis in Jerusalem and against the French in Paris or Nice is the same terror, and that there is a worldwide struggle between two civilizations that fundamentally differ from each. He also is well aware that Israel is at the forefront of the battle against terror and can offer assistance, in light of its extensive and painful experience. Macron also condemned the recent terror attack at the Temple Mount and conveyed his condolences to the families of the two policemen who were killed on duty.

At the same time, President Macron is continuing the policy of his predecessors on the Palestinian issue. He condemns ongoing construction in the Israeli settlements, supports two states for two peoples, and affirms that Jerusalem will be the capital of the two states. In this regard, it appears that France’s position will not change in the near future. There is, however, progress on one issue: Macron broke new ground by coming out against the Palestinian leadership’s demand for the return of the refugees.

On the issue of the Iranian threat, Netanyahu made clear that he opposes any agreement in Syria that will not distance Iran from the Israeli border, and that he will not consent, despite what is taking shape between Russia and the United States, to Iran building military bases in Lebanon. Macron understood Israel’s concern and promised to act accordingly, including reigning in Hizbullah. Whether he will succeed in his task is another matter, as France no longer has the influence it once had in Lebanon.

The visit also offered an opportunity to enhance bilateral cooperation. Macron, who is well versed in economics and was a brilliant banker, is enthused by Israel’s achievements, especially in the domain of high-tech and startup technology. He accepted Netanyahu’s invitation to make an official visit to Israel soon.

To sum up, the prime minister’s visit to Paris was a success despite criticisms leading up to it and protests in France. The friendship between the two countries and peoples is deep and longstanding. Notwithstanding the disagreements on the Palestinian issue, it was further strengthened.

About Amb. Freddy Eytan

Amb. Freddy Eytan, a former Foreign Ministry senior advisor who served in Israel’s embassies in Paris and Brussels, was Israel’s first Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He was also the spokesman of the Israeli delegation in the peace process with the Palestinians. Since 2007, he heads the Israel-Europe Project at the Jerusalem Center, which focuses on analyzing Israeli relations with the countries of Europe and seeks to develop ties and avenues of bilateral cooperation. He is also the director of Le Cape, the Jerusalem Center website in French. Amb. Eytan has written 20 books about the Israeli-Arab conflict and the policy of France in the Middle East, including La Poudriere (The Powder Keg) and Le double jeu (the Double Game). He has also published biographies of Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a book, The 18 Who Built Israel.