French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson ''is no friend of Israel,'' said Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin a few weeks ago. Today, in the wake of Mr. Cheysson's visit last week to Israel, both French and Israeli officials are talking of a ''new era'' between Paris and Jerusalem. The visit is described as evidence of the new French Socialist government's more evenhanded approach in the Middle East.
On the one hand, Mr. Cheysson endorsed the Camp David peace process and appeared to turn a cold shoulder to the European hopes for their peace initiative in the Middle East. He was quoted as saying the Europeans' ''Venice declaration'' last year on the Middle East was ''absurd.''
On the other, he reaffirmed French support for a Palestinian state and for inclusion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the peace process as a ''representative element of the Palestinians.''
President Mitterrand - who on Feb. 10-12 will make the first visit ever by a French president to Israel - elaborated at his Dec. 9 press conference on this dual approach.
''Israel has a right to exist. One cannot refuse the means to that existence. It needs security, secure frontiers . . .'' he said. ''But in the same way, I will say to my Israeli friends, 'You must recognize the right to existence of the Palestinian people. . . And how can you, without falling into illusion and lies, say that there would be a Palestinian homeland but with the Palestinians forbidden to create and defend the state structure of their choice?' ''
Because of such vigorous support for a new Palestinian state, some Israeli officials here say that the new French government ''is even worse'' in some ways than the previous unabashedly pro-Arab government of President Giscard d'Estaing.
''Before, Giscard said the Palestinians should have a homeland, avoiding the word state,'' says one Israeli official. ''A homeland might be united with Jordan or confederated with Israel. But Mitterrand and Cheysson say openly that this Palestinian homeland should be a state.''
Still, the Israelis see Cheysson's statements and Mitterrand's upcoming visit as part of a ''change in French attitude.''
During the June 1967 Arab-Israel war Charles de Gaulle decreed an arms boycott against Israel, and successive conservative French governments have been consistently pro-Arab.
In contrast, French Socialists have always admired Israel as the ''epitome of a socialist country,'' explains Andre Wormer of the Alliance Israelite, a French-based group that has spread French culture among Jews for more than a century. ''It's a country built by socialism, from the kibbutz to David Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir.''
At the same time, French Socialists, especially younger members, have also traditionally empathized with the Palestinian cause. ''They see the Palestinians as deprived people just at the Jews were before them,'' Wormer says.
Mitterrand himself ran on this pro-Israeli yet pro-Palestinian platform last spring. He promised France's 700,000 Jewish voters that his first trip abroad would be to Israel.
Once in office, however, he moved quickly to mollify any Arab fears about his policies. He dispatched Mr. Cheysson to Beirut to meet with the PLO's Yasser Arafat. Then Saudi Crown Prince Fahd visited the Elysee Palace; and Mitterrand made his first state visit not to Israel but to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Now, it would appear, the French President has returned to the Israeli half of his dual Mideast policy.