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Friday, July 25, 2014

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The warying taste of the French kiss

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There were more ups and downs in France-Israel relations last week than a loopy roller-coaster. The disorienting spinning began with the vote by the French government supporting the application of the Palestinian Authority for full state membership in UNESCO. 

Merely days later at the G20 summit, there was the behind-the-scenes, off-camera, but on-mike, gratuitous aspersion by French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed to U.S. President Barack Obama, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a liar.” Netanyahu’s office offered no comment. But the embarrassment to Sarkozy was palpable.

In an obvious attempt to mitigate the discomfiture, Sarkozy told a delegation from the World Jewish Congress visiting the very next day that “France will always stand side by side with Israel against an Iran that threatens it by developing nuclear weapons.” According to a JTA report, Sarkozy also added that Israel had no better security partner than his government but warned of unilateral actions by Israel against the regime in Tehran. 

Later in the week, Ynetnews reported that the French government had issued a temporary passport to a dual French-Israeli citizen and listed the residence of the passport holder as the “Occupied Palestinian Territory.” The individual lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, a community of nearly 40,000 people on the northeastern outskirts of Jerusalem. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was reported to be sending his French counterpart a letter of protest, demanding that France remove the words “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

As in relations between individuals, so too between countries: what matters are deeds, not rhetoric. Thus, Sarkozy’s incontinent remark about the Israeli prime minister, though undignified and callow, is a temporary public relations blemish against the French leader. For the same reason, Sarkozy’s platitude about standing side by side with Israel against Iran are merely meaningless banal bromides. It can only be measured against the strong, true light of his government’s actions, such as his decisions at UNESCO and in the offices of the French foreign ministry.

Both were harmful to Israel. The UNESCO vote adds to Israel’s isolation and pushes it further into a legal and diplomatic corner. The passport designation prejudges, to Israel’s detriment, one of the core issues regarding the disputed territory that was taken back from Jordan in the Six Day War nearly 45 years ago. There were no ambiguities or nuances in the French behaviour. 

Sarkozy’s profuse proclamations of support for Israel are tempered by the legendary reputation of the French kiss. It tantalizes, to be sure, but it also leaves behind a warying taste that betrays affection and lingers.

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