The French Connection

What a difference a war makes. The Bush administration, long dismissive of multilateral diplomatic moves, especially with "Old Europe," worked closely with France to bring a diplomatic resolution to the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Now, it looks like these efforts may pay off, with an initial agreement at the U.N. for the U.S.-French sponsored resolution, and acceptance by the warring parties.

If the U.N. agreement holds, this will be due in no small part to Israel's acceptance of the U.S./French document, which partly stems from the Israeli government's realizaton that they need to move in another direction if they are going to achieve their aim of squelching Hezbollah. The Israeli street began to turn last week, with the Peace Now movement beginning demonstrations against the war for the first time. The movement's leaders had overwhelmingly supported Israel's initial response -- to defend the country's international borders. But the growing sense of optimism that a diplomatic deal might help achieve the goal of securing Israel's northern border against Hezbollah attacks have combined with concerns about both the damage exacted on Lebanon itself and the prospects of a drawn-out war that could take hundreds of Israeli casualties. So the peace camp had been pushing the Israeli government to accept a diplomatic deal. And as the process moves forward, France (and the European Union) will be a key player.

The American right may not like France, but the country can and will make a difference in the region. Though France is widely recognized as a friend to the Arab world, it also has the largest Jewish population on the European continent -- 700,000 strong. It's a community that, in the last few years especially, has experienced a growing engagement and attachment to Israel (a development likely related to widely publicized incidents of anti-Semitism in France). During the Second Intifada (2000-2004), when American Jews thought twice about flying to Israel for vacation due to security concerns, French Jews didn't have the same qualms. In 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made an infamous comment imploring French Jews to leave France en masse to move to Israel, to be safe from anti-Semitism. Sharon made that comment to a group of American Jewish leaders, ensuring that it got terrific play in the U.S. press and fueled anti-French sentiment here. But it infuriated the French Jewish community. Even though more French Jews have indeed moved to Israel in recent years, most only come for visits and are quite content (as they told Sharon then) to live in their home country and work through the problems there.

Their numbers fill the hotels along Tel Aviv's beach strip, and more and more of them have bought second homes. Today, Tel Aviv hotels feature menus in English and French and French TV along with CNN on the cable boxes. French can be heard as readily as English and Hebrew in cities like Tel Aviv, Netanya, and elsewhere.

French Jewish community leaders have asserted themselves almost as forcefully as the American Jewish leadership, pushing their government to engage with Israel. Shortly after the war with Hezbollah broke out, I happened upon two back-to-back solidarity missions at a Tel Aviv hotel, one comprised of American Jewish leadership and the other of French Jewish leaders. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz addressed the French gathering. (The majority of French Jews today have ancestry from North Africa, including Morocco, which is where Peretz himself was born). And it was not surprising to see Bernard-Henri Levy recently writing about his wartime visit to Israel in The New York Times Magazine; Levy and other major French-Jewish intellectuals are engaged with Israel, and usually align with the peace camp.

In fact, this summer was already slated to be the season of cultural cooperation between France and Israel. Earlier in the summer, France launched a cultural festival promoting France to the Israelis and celebrating cultural ties between the two countries, replete with a big fireworks display along the beach in Tel Aviv. A French film series was scheduled for all the art cinemas in Israel, including in Haifa, the northern city badly hit by Hezbollah rockets. Meanwhile, an exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art features a retrospective of the work of Chantal Ackerman, a Belgian-French filmmaker, and offers a video historiography of Ackerman's life as a Jewish woman in post-Holocaust Europe.

With these kinds of connections, France is a critical ally for the United States in the current crisis. No more Freedom Fries in Washington; we're back to frite full force. The United States and France may have battled over waging war in Iraq, but they are currently joined at the hip in attempting the near-impossible -- waging peace in Lebanon. And it's the role France can play among the Arab states that makes it especially valuable as an ally to the United States and to Israel. After all, France's connections to Lebanon are even more extensive than those to Israel. Having ruled over the country for decades in the last century, France's imprint continues there (though the strongest allegiance is among the Christian elite based in West Beirut, not the poor Shiites who support Hezbollah). Unlike the United States, France has credibility in the Arab world. And unlike the United State's closest ally, Great Britain, France also has the ability to sway broader European Union opinion.

If this ceasefire holds, and if French troops play an effective leading role in securing the multilateral peace-keeping force, the United States should keep this partnership afloat. What would a good next step be for such a diplomatic partnership? The United States may have to forego its no-talk policy with Syria, since there could be movement between Israel and Syria now -- something the Israelis have been quietly pushing for throughout this entire crisis. And, eventually, the United States must engage France and the rest of the European Union in encouraging Israel to resolve the issue at the core of the current troubles: the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel for, The Forward, tpmcafe.com and elsewhere. She is co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today's Israel? She is an officer of Americans for Peace Now, affiliated with Israel's Peace Now movement.

Copyright © 2006 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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