Vincent Nouzille, Histoires secrètes France-Israël, 1948-2018

, September 4, 2018

Vincent Nouzille, Histoires secrètes France-Israël, 1948-2018. Editions Les Liens Qui Libèrent, 2018,447 pages. ISBN:979-10-209-0584-0

After having read this extensive, 447-pages-long study of Franco-Israeli relations from 1948 to 2018, the title given to the book drew my attention again. The writer purposely chose to name the book “Secret Stories” whereas at first glance I had thought the title was “Secret History.” I believe this is no mistake: indeed the writer does not pretend to present the secret history of the relations between France and Israel since much of it is still under secrecy laws. His choice of the title suggests that he has had a window on these problematic, stormy relations and that he selected stories that reflect their status over the course of Israel‘s history since its establishment 70 years ago.

One thing is certain: this is one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date books about Franco-Israeli relations. It surpasses earlier books by the mere fact that the author was given access to the archives of the Quai d’Orsay (the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) as well as those of the French presidency. On the other hand, the author was given no access to Israeli archives, and he tried to compensate for this lack of information with a series of interviews with some of the (still available) Israeli actors. These are mainly ambassadors and scholars, and they are not always knowledgeable about the core information on the two countries’ relations. On the French side, conversely, the author has met with witnesses who were part of the French establishment and present at the different junctures of these relations.

All in all, the author, a well-known journalist and scholar, offers here a very well-documented history of the two countries’ relations and excels at depicting the schizophrenic nature of these ties. A love story that began in the Jewish state’s early years turned sour on the eve of the Six-Day War when Israel refused to abide by De Gaulle’s “advice” not to be the one to initiate hostilities against the Arabs, and it has never recovered since.

It is almost with humor that Nouzille describes the French syndrome: on the one hand, admiration and respect for the nascent nation; on the other, an urge to force Israel to accede to French dictates on foreign policy, and if needed by imposing an arms embargo and denying former agreements on nuclear cooperation. Along these 70 years of history, France has been struggling with the phantoms of its Vichy and anti-Semitic past, and its tortured conscience leads it to a dual attitude toward Israel. Undoubtedly the French-Israeli cooperation in Israel’s early days stemmed from the fact that France was confronted by a common enemy: Arab nationalism and the uprising in Algeria. However, when France settled its Algerian legacy, its leaders sought to reestablish the traditional relations with the Arab world. As a result the relations with Israel had to be reduced to such a state that they would not affect France‘s vital interests in the Arab world. Still, because of its troubled past, France continued its commitment to Israel’s survival while, on the other hand, it became the champion of the Palestinian cause and led many initiatives that were intended to give Arafat and the PLO an international status, short of recognizing a Palestinian state.

Nouzille excels at depicting the conflicting voices in the French political establishment. At times the president and the ministers worked together on policy toward Israel, while at some other times they worked against one another.

France’s policy toward Israel pushed the Jewish state into the arms of the United States; Israel had no other choice but to adopt a conflicting attitude toward its former ally and sponsor. As much as France tried to be part and parcel of every peace initiative between Israel and the Arabs, Israel made sure France was given no role in the peace process. Israel constantly took France by surprise: the peace with Egypt, with Jordan, the Oslo Accords, as well as military incursions into Lebanon. The more France wanted to be present, the more Israel barred its way and prevented Paris from being among the decision-makers in the Middle East.

However, Israel sought to maintain a line of communication with France. While keeping Paris out of further involvement in the conflict with the Palestinians, Jerusalem wanted its good services and assistance in humanitarian and other areas.

Having worked with the late Prime Minister Rabin, I am familiar with the Israeli attitude toward France. It is indeed a duplicate of the French attitude toward Israel: admiration and contempt. Israel never forgave France for what Jerusalem perceived as a betrayal. The divorce was final even though the couple continued to meet and speak from time to time.

The so-called “Arab spring” and the ascent of the Islamic State (Daesh) pushed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the side. France, like other European countries, was confronted with other priorities: Islamic radicalism and terrorism, an issue that brought Paris reluctantly to cooperate with Israel in the field of intelligence and exchange of information.

Nouzille‘s book is an excellent reference work on the history of Franco-Israeli relations. The appendixes include unpublished documents of paramount importance in the history of the two countries. This book will definitely remain at the crossroads of any further research on the subject.

Some minor errors are worth noting:

  • On page 100, we certainly will not reach the year 2969.
  • One page 187, Major General Yehoshua Sagui was chief of military intelligence and not head of the Mossad.
  • One page 253, Nouzille writes that on September 23, 1996, Netanyahu authorized the digging of a tunnel near the Western Wall at the foot of the esplanade of the mosques, the holy place of the Arabs. Two remarks: Netanyahu ordered the opening of the tunnel, which had already been dug; and the esplanade is not only holy to the Arabs  but to all Muslims and Jews.
  • On page 243, Francois Leotard was not the one who in 1994 revived the military cooperation between the two countries. At the height of the First Intifada (1987-1990), the military cooperation between the two armies was compared to that between Israel and the United States.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.