Written by Dr. Tsilla Hershco
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: French government reaction to the flotilla affair has been tough, and is perceived by the Israeli mainstream as typical of the unjustified global diplomatic lynch Israel has been subjected to over the past two weeks. This threatens to undermine the trust that has been built-up in Franco-Israeli relations over recent years and to undercut the French desire to be recognized as an honest broker and player in the region.
On May 31, 2010 France rushed to condemn Israel over the violent clashes on the Flotilla ship Mavi Marmara, even though the real facts regarding the premeditated violence of the so called "peace activists" on board had not yet been revealed. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has repeatedly called himself a friend of Israel, labeled the Israeli operation excessive and disproportionate. His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, declared that he was shocked by the Israeli assault on the ship, stressing that "nothing can justify the use of such violence."
Since then, the French government has demanded the creation of an international inquiry committee; reiterated its often-declared concerns over the humanitarian situation of the civilian population in Gaza; and called for a lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza -- which it considers to be collective punishment. France also has proposed that the EU take charge of the inspection of ships heading for Gaza in order to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hamas, which, in fact, France considers a terrorist movement.
French reaction versus policy
Unfortunately, the French position regarding the Flotilla contradicts numerous basic tenets of French policy, and these contradictions may consequently backfire on France's ability to accomplish its own declared objectives.
On one hand, France has devoted remarkable efforts and resources to the strengthening and consolidation of the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas' position. It regards this policy as the means to create a viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. Yet, the French proposals regarding Gaza may strengthen Hamas at the expense of Fatah and Abbas. In addition, the encouragement of Hamas, an adamant opponent of any peace process with Israel, negates France's declared aspirations to bolster peace negotiations.
France's stance on the Flotilla affair might also compromise one of its major policy positions relating to the Iranian nuclear program. France has consistently endeavored to impose a new round of tougher sanctions on Iran in light of its incompliance with the UN Security Council's demands. However, French support of Turkey's provocative behavior in the Gaza Flotilla affair empowers extremist Turkish hardliners, who not only support Hamas but also aspire to strengthen Turkey's relations with Iran and oppose any international sanctions against the Islamist Republic. Indeed, on June 9, Turkey and Brazil were the only countries to vote against the UN Security Council proposal for sanctions on Iran.
While France has often declared its sensitivity towards Israel's security needs, its proposal that EU agents oversee the inspection of vessels heading to Gaza would not likely be an efficient means of regulation. One only needs recall the summer of 2007 when EU guards at the Gaza border crossings fled immediately after Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip. Another example of such international policing failure is UNIFIL in Lebanon, whose presence has not prevented the smuggling of weapons to Hizballah. The import of such a failure in Gaza would be the rearmament of Hamas with rockets, which would in future be directed at the Israeli civilian population.
France, it appears, is beginning to make the same policy errors it committed at the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000. At that time, France's one-sided, pro-Palestinian policy caused a severe rupture in ties between Paris and Jerusalem, which led to the distancing of French diplomats from any major diplomatic role in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Subsequently, France embarked on an effort to rehabilitate its ties with Israel. In recent years, this process seems to have borne fruit: Israel's mistrust and animosity towards France had been largely replaced by a much warmer attitude. France succeeded in repositioning itself, as it had aspired to, as a fair-minded mediator that maintains good relations with the various conflicting parties.
However, recent French statements and attitudes, as manifested in the Gaza flotilla affair, have been perceived by the Israeli mainstream as an unjustified lynch against a democratic country defending the legitimate rights of its citizens to live in security. To Israelis, it appears that France has been party to the chorus of delegitimization that has ganged up on Israel, playing into the hands of the extremists.
Recent French statements ought to be rethought. France can play a productive role in the complicated process of stabilizing the region, provided that it adheres to the even-handed stance which has characterized its policy in recent years.
Dr. Tsilla Hershco is a research associate at the BESA Center specializing in Franco-Israeli relations.
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