Israelis applaud France for 'standing up' as Iran talks resume in Geneva

French President Hollande's warm words on a state visit to Israel echo the talking points of pro-Israel lobbyists in the US, but divisions on the Palestinian peace process remain.

Jack Guez/AP
French President Francois Hollande speaks during a visit to a French-Israeli technology innovation summit at a hotel in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Hollande wrapped up a three-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories by attending the technology event and meeting French community members.

French President François Hollande’s three-day visit to Israel has inspired high-minded talk of shared heritage, common values, and unbreakable bonds between the two nations. Blink, and one might have thought that the talking points had come from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington.    

But over the last week, Israelis have rushed to embrace France as their new hero after Paris played the role of hardliner against Iran’s nuclear program. Its intervention was widely credited with sinking a compromise deal between world powers and Iran that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a "dream" deal for Tehran and a "nightmare" deal for the Jewish state and the rest of the world.

"It is my duty to act in every way to protect the Jewish state from [Iran’s] threat. I know you share this goal. Your friendship is sincere. It is real. You were one out of six," Mr. Netanayhu said, referring to the six world powers negotiating opposite Iran. "You said it correctly. In critical times its important to stand up for what’s right."

Though it was in the works for several months, Mr. Hollande’s three-day visit to the Jewish state and the Palestinian territories could not have been better timed: it wrapped up Tuesday, just one day before talks are set to resume in Geneva on the Iranian nuclear program.

"At a time when the fashionable thing to do in Israel’s government is to denounce President Obama and joke about Secretary of State Kerry and to shout that the US is throwing Israel under the flames of Iranian centrifuges," wrote Barak Ravid in the liberal Haaretz newspaper on Tuesday, "the French President Francois Hollande was received as a savior and redeemer."

French-Israeli ties have had their ups and downs. France is credited with helping to outfit the fledgling Israeli military during its first two decades of existence. However Paris has been viewed as more pro-Arab since imposing an arms embargo on Israel in the months before the 1967 Arab Israeli war -- prompting Israel to pivot to the US as its main ally. That bad blood appeared to have been pushed aside in recent days.

In particular, Hollande's supportive words about holding steadfast to national principles even when in the minority – a reference to world powers' talks with Iran – seemed tailored to the Israeli predicament. And his vow on the floor of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, that France would always stand at Israel’s side and never let Iran get a nuclear weapon echoed the assurances of President Barack Obama on his last visit here when he visited the Jewish state last spring.

In a reference to Obama, Netanyahu quipped that he hoped Israel and France could convince their "friend" to push for an improved deal with Iran. Netanyahu repeatedly emphasized how the Zionist movement drew inspiration from the universalist values of the French revolution.

But for all the romancing, no one in Israel has any illusions about a shift away from the US. France's president was more blunt on the peace process than his US counterpart, calling on Israel for a "complete halt" of settlement expansion. At the Knesset, he urged Israel to agree to share Jerusalem as a capital of Israel and a Palestinian state  –  not exactly AIPAC talking points, let alone those of Netanyahu and his hardline political allies.

In Haaretz, Mr. Ravid pointed out that France opposes the military option against Iran and doesn’t share Israel’s insistence that Tehran be barred from enriching uranium all together.  And an Israeli former diplomat said he expects France eventually to sign on to a deal.

"The French will support a diplomatic compromise with Iran," says Yehuda Lancry, a former ambassador to Paris. "They will be there just to assure that the maximum security [consideration] is given to Israel, Saudi Arabia and other states."

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