One incident, somewhere between inconsequential and serious, gave the presidential visit by France's Francois Hollande the media luster it had been lacking. Until then, everything had gone according to plan. France announced that Hollande would arrive in Israel on Nov. 17 for an official state visit, and Israel announced it would gladly welcome him. Things then took an embarrassing turn.
Hollande, who was supposed to be received at the Knesset, canceled his planned speech. In response, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein announced plans for a counter-boycott and scrapping the official welcoming ceremony for the French president. The French media flew into a tizzy. At the National Assembly, representatives spoke of a crisis in ties between the two countries, pundits discussed the president’s entanglement and the heads of the Jewish community felt hurt and degraded by the French move and the Israeli response.
None of Hollande’s advisers foresaw the intensity of the crisis. They were guided by the model of US President Barack Obama when they sent the cancellation announcement to Edelstein. They were certain that an appearance at Tel Aviv University in front of hundreds of students would provide the visiting president with the prestige he is due, especially given the decline in standing of the Knesset and of politics among the general public.
The aides did not anticipate the vehement reaction of Edelstein. What he dared not do to Obama, Edelstein did to Hollande. As if it weren’t enough that he sought to prevent Hollande from visiting the Knesset, he added another blow: He announced that the French Embassy staff and other official French representatives would not be allowed to hold meetings in the Israeli legislature and that he himself would not meet with them.
Then came the “French surrender.” Hollande, an easy-going man who throughout his political career has sought consensus and distanced himself from confrontation, felt that the incident was causing great political damage to himself. With one miserable decision, he had caused grave harm to the planned visit, to the ties between the two states, to the Knesset’s standing and to the Jewish community in his country.
The president of France reversed his decision and announced that he would indeed speak at the Knesset. Edelstein followed suit, issuing a glowing announcement in which he went out of his way to welcome Hollande. “It is a great honor for the Israeli Knesset to host the president of France, a country that is among Israel's close friends,'' he enthused.
In addition to fixing the protocol gaffe, what came to France’s rescue was its tough stand on the P5+1 nuclear talks in Geneva. The Israeli public was impressed by the way France toed the skeptical Israeli line regarding Iran’s intentions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had expressed his total mistrust of the emerging agreement, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius then acted as though he were Netanyahu’s representative. Immediately after the talks failed, Netanyahu announced that Israel would “roll out the red carpet for the president of France.”
As a result of the protocol correction and diplomatic developments, what could have been an unpleasant visit turned into diplomatic matrimony, as far as the two parties are concerned. This is the fourth visit of a French president to Israel. Late French President Francois Mitterrand was received royally in 1982, even though he had announced before on the Knesset dais that Israel could not avoid dismantling settlements and establishing a Palestinian state in all the territories captured since 1967, including an Arab capital in Jerusalem.
Since then no changes have occurred in French policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Jacques Chirac and his successor Nicolas Sarkozy were received with great ceremony and honor, but reiterated Mitterrand’s stand word for word. Sarkozy expressed his wonder with Israel and heaped on it an abundance of praise, but remained determined as far as the solution to the conflict.
Hollande, too, is expected to go the route of his predecessors in stressing that division of the land is the basis for resolving the violent conflict between the two peoples. The Arab states and the Palestinians expect that in his Knesset speech and his meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Hollande will strengthen the traditional French position dictated back in the days of General Charles de Gaulle. The reception that awaits him in Ramallah will depend to a large extent on what he tells the Israelis.
There are 600,000 French-language speakers in Israel, tens of thousands of whom immigrated here from France in the last decade. Some 700,000 Jews still live in France. All follow closely what they describe as their country’s “Arab politics,” which they interpret as an effort to appease the Arabs at Israel’s expense.
In the past, most French Jews voted for left-wing candidates because of what they perceived as the Socialist Party’s values of equality and solidarity. In the 2007 and 2012 elections, they veered to the right and voted overwhelmingly for the right wing’s candidate, Sarkozy. Domestic issues were shoved aside to make way for the question of France’s attitude toward Israel. The right-wing candidates were perceived as pro-Israel, while those of the left were seen as giving precedence to Arab interests.
This is the political dilemma with which President Hollande will have to contend on his visit to Israel. He will need all his skills in order to satisfy Jews and Palestinians alike. On the face of it, this seems an impossible task. A senior French commentator told me this week that even if he succeeds, it is doubtful it will help rebuild Hollande’s standing at home. “President Hollande is in the throes of a political downturn which no president before him has experienced,” according to Francois Clemenceau, diplomatic commentator for Le Journal de Dimanche. “He is at the bottom of the polls and the French do not indicate any interest in his travels. For you, this is perhaps important, but for the French, a lot less.”
And perhaps what will endure from this visit has to do with the strengthening of bilateral economic ties. The businesspeople who will accompany Hollande are expected to expand economic activity between the two countries and to raise it to new heights. In these days of global economic distress, there’s something to be said for that, too.