Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)
A Stormy Romance of France and Israel
La France, Israël et les Arabes: le double jeu? by Freddy Eytan
Reviewed by Joel Fishman
The purpose of this book, France, Israel and the Arabs: The Double Game?, is to give an account of the bilateral relations between France and Israel, approximately from 1974 to the present. Its author, is a senior Israeli diplomat, journalist and head of the Israel-Europe project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His method was to choose a long time-span and to utilize a wide selection of documentary written and oral sources. He has based his account on sources at the highest levels of government and the political class both in France and in Israel, and the finished result reflects this perspective. The book offers a coherent account of the facts and the development of French-Israeli relations over a period which has been both stormy and calm.
At times, French-Israeli relations have been characterized by misunderstandings and personal drama, so it is fortunate that the author tactfully demonstrates a humane and generous appreciation of human weakness. It is also clear that he understands the cultural background and ambience of both France and Israel. Accordingly, Eytan provides penetrating profiles of such dramatis personae as Jacques Chirac, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Raymond Barre, Ovadia Sofer, Avi Pazner, and Ehud Barak.
If one quality characterizes this book, it is the author’s sense of decency and generosity in the fullest sense. One would search in vain for villains here, although there may have been a few. Similarly, the reader may occasionally receive the impression that the author knows just a bit more than he is telling. This may be the case, because the implied message of this book is a plea for better understanding between France and Israel.
The author has defined himself as a journalist, rather than a political scientist or historian, but he delivers much more than journalism. He gives capable coverage of the subject and a competent narrative. In addition, the book includes references to sources, a detailed chronological table, an appendix of hitherto unpublished documents, and an index. Indeed, Eytan has delivered more than he promised.
Some Critical Observations
At the same time, it is possible to make a number of critical observations. Despite the title, the author does not devote sustained attention to the Arabs and the implications of their policies for France, domestically and internationally. These have resulted in a massive immigration of Arabs to France, creating the “lost territories” within France – that is, largely Muslim neighborhoods which have become effectively autonomous; anti-Semitic violence; and more recently civil insurrection. A policy of accepting a largely unrestricted immigration from Islamic lands without a parallel effort to integrate such populations may have destabilizing consequences for French society. Within a broader perspective, one is confronted with the issue of the “clash of civilizations,” which Bernard Lewis first raised, and the effects of sustained Islamic cultural pressure on France and Europe.
The qualifying phrase of the title poses the question as to whether France’s policy represents a double game. The idea of making a statement followed by a question mark entered into fashion with Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History? Just the same, if an author raises this type of question, it is his responsibility to make the call rather than to leave the reader hanging on a question mark. Of course France is playing a double game and it could not be otherwise. Probably every state which maintains relations with the Arab world must do so, but some countries bend over more than others.
France was the midwife at the birth of today’s Islamic Republic of Iran, a rogue state, which along with North Korea, now threatens world peace. President Giscard d’Estaing provided asylum and hospitality to Ayatollah Khomeini who resided in Neauphle le Chateau near Paris and, on 1 February 1979, triumphally arrived in Teheran on a special Air France flight. Further, it is not generally remembered that, two generations earlier, France extended similar hospitality to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a close friend of Heinrich Himmler and enthusiastic advocate of the “Final Solution.” Although the French government was obligated to detain this war criminal and bring him to law, they lodged him in a villa in the fashionable Paris suburb of Rambouillet where he enjoyed an excellent standard of living at a time when many Frenchmen went hungry.1 Gradually, Haj Amin’s gracious hosts lifted police surveillance, leaving him in the care of his household staff. So, on 28 May 1946, the Mufti simply sent two servants to buy food, while his chauffeur drove him to the airport where he boarded a TWA flight to Cairo.2
One wonders if the real motives for this fishing in troubled waters may have been to foment hatred and discord in the region and one may also ask what concrete benefits the makers of French foreign policy hoped to gain.
De Gaulle’s Reorientation of French Foreign Policy
Probably the most serious shortcoming of this book is one of historical periodization. It begins in 1974 when, according to the author, France adopted a policy favorable to the PLO, but French-Israeli relations are clearly divided otherwise: before 1967 and after 1967. Before 1967, bilateral relations between France and Israel were defined by alliance and friendship. France provided military and technical training for the young state, entr?e into Africa, and not least, an atomic reactor. France supported Israel’s war of independence (just as it had supported the Americans a few centuries before). France and Israel were allies in 1956, and with the agreement of the United States, France became Israel’s main arms supplier.
After the Six-Day War, General de Gaulle, at his famous news conference of 27 November 1967, announced the formal reversal of French policy. After France’s withdrawal from Algeria, he adopted a totally new foreign policy orientation, which resulted in a shift toward the Arab world and, within the context of the Cold War, the policy of d?tente. After his dramatic news conference, official French-Israeli relations ceased in terms of alliance and friendship. This decision represented a defining moment not only for Israel, but also for contemporary France in its own right, and if one wishes to understand contemporary France and Israel one must deal with the 1967 watershed frontally and in chronological sequence.
At his conference, General de Gaulle used the unforgettable phrase: “le peuple juif, sûr de lui meme et dominateur” (the Jewish people, self-confident and domineering), which the author quotes retrospectively in the last chapter (p. 470). The practical consequence of his brutal statements, which drew heavily on Charles Maurras, a monarchist-nationalist-Catholic thinker and politician with strong anti-Semitic feelings, was to make the open expression of anti-Semitism once again acceptable in France and in Europe. According to the Canadian historian Henry Weinberg, “De Gaulle implicitly characterized the Israelis as arrogant, expansionist war hawks who seek every opportunity to achieve their imperialistic aims, as militarists spoiling for a fight. He also ‘invited’ the Jews to keep a low profile, implying that Israel’s right to live in security was linked to the ‘humility’ of its political behavior.”3 Since then, Israeli attitudes toward France have been characterized by a distinct bipolarity: feelings of gratitude and nostalgia on the one hand, and bitterness and disappointment on the other.
Despite this structural shortcoming, La France, Israël et les Arabes: le double jeu? is a valuable and highly readable contribution to our understanding of the bilateral relations between France and Israel.
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1. John Roy Carlson, Cairo to Damascus (New York: Knopf, 1951), p. 422.
2. Ibid., pp. 410-11.
3. Henry H. Weinberg, The Myth of the Jew in France, 1967-1982 (Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1987), p. 34.
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DR. JOEL FISHMAN is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has recently published on Israel’s position after the Oslo Accords, and his book, with Efraim Karsh, La Guerre d’Oslo, appeared this year.