French President Francois Hollande arrived in Israel for an official state visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Sunday, bringing a promise to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, along with an ardent wish to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
From Hollande’s perspective, the timing of this visit could not be better. The United States’ diminishing credibility and strategic grip within the Arab world has created a golden opportunity. Sunni friends loyal to Washington, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, are furious at President Obama’s rush to sign a treaty with the ayatollah regime in Tehran, which would act to strengthen the Shiite camp hostile to them.
When it comes to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, French policy is and always has been one-sided in the Palestinians’ favor. This policy has not changed in four decades – ever since France first permitted the PLO to open an office in Paris and conducted official meetings with Yasser Arafat. Today, the policy is manifested in both economic and political support for Mahmoud Abbas, most notably in France’s recognition of Palestine as a full member within most UN bodies, in contrast to other Western countries. On Syria, as with the Iranian nuclear project, France has maintained a position that has been consistent, courageous, and more forceful than that of the U.S. or other Western states.
Socialist France continues a foreign policy similar to that of its right-wing presidents Chirac and Sarkozy. Beginning back in the days of Charles de Gaulle, that policy was often unconventional and at odds with the consensus shared by NATO, the United States and the rest of Europe. France still sees itself as a military power capable of making fateful decisions regarding world peace. Recall that Sarkozy waged open war on Col. Muammar Khaddafi. President Hollande conducted a major military operation against Islamist terror in Mali and was prepared to participate in a strike against the Assad regime in Syria at America’s side. Only at the last minute was the strike was called off when Russia’s Putin managed to prevent the West’s intervention.
In view of the current tension and lack of trust between Paris and Washington, accentuated by the news of American surveillance on French government institutions, France may be seeking to distinguish itself from Obama’s stance on Iran and the Arab world even further, while trying to increase its influence in the Middle East, particularly within the Sunni states. France continues to supply weapons to the Gulf States and the French army has a base in Abu Dhabi. France’s ties with the Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have been further cemented in light of their firm opposition to Basher al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
France’s resolve when it comes to Iran may derive from its bitter experience with Saddam Hussein. Under President Giscard d’Estaing, France built a nuclear reactor in Baghdad which was destroyed by Israel’s Begin government in June 1981 due to the justified concern that it was being built for military purposes. France’s promises at the time, and its guarantees that Israel’s worries were unfounded, simply did not measure up against the data on the ground. Today, three decades later, France is the wiser and it is demanding additional guarantees from Iran, despite believing in Tehran’s right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Clearly, President Hollande’s visit and his speech to the Knesset will do much to strengthen bilateral ties with Israel in all areas, including intelligence. The visit will also provide France’s Jewish community with a sense of security, despite a recent rash of anti-Semitic incidents. Hollande’s visit will fortify Israel’s position regarding Iran and thus seek to avert a bad deal. France, which succeeded in delaying the signing in Geneva, has earned our appreciation. Yet ultimately, it is unlikely that France would refrain from signing an agreement put forth by the Americans due to its own clear economic interests. President Hollande’s popularity at home is at an all-time low and France is in the midst of an economic crisis the depths of which the Fifth Republic has not known since its establishment in 1958.
If the Obama administration has in fact made a decision to sign a bad deal with Iran and is simultaneously trying to push a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian problem, Israel must soberly reconsider its relations with the superpowers. The United States will, of course, continue to be Israel’s greatest strategic ally in every sense, but in view of the new geopolitical circumstances, we must look to fill the void left by the United States in our region and to improve our ties with both China and Russia. We must also do what we can to support President Hollande when it comes to Iran’s nuclear project, on condition, of course, that he shows greater understanding of the State of Israel’s security needs for defensible borders, as well as greater balance in his position vis-á-vis the Palestinians.