‘France could bring us closer to North Africa, if it wanted to’

Facing hostile politicians and a sometimes too-zealous Jewish community, Israel’s embassy in Paris maintains a delicate balancing act

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with French President Francois Hollande in Paris, October 31, 2012 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with French President Francois Hollande in Paris, October 31, 2012 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Flash 90)

PARIS — France could do more to advance ties between Israel and North African countries with which the Jewish state doesn’t have diplomatic relations, a senior Israeli diplomat said. But disillusioned by the Arab Spring, key European countries are reluctant to act due to their own doubts about the future of Euro-Arab relations.

From his office in the Israeli embassy in Paris, Zvi Tal, who serves as Israel’s number 2 diplomat in France after ambassador Yossi Gal, told The Times of Israel in an interview that Europe could do more to bring together Israeli and Arab experts in diplomatic forums such as the Union for the Mediterranean, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Through such multilateral forums, Israel could form trust-building measures which could eventually pave the way to full diplomatic ties with North African members of the Arab League that currently shun the Jewish state.

But Europe today is itself skeptical about the future of the Arab Maghreb and therefore reluctant to push Israel in an uncertain direction.

Israel maintained diplomatic relations with a number of North African Arab countries in the past. Tunisia cut the ties following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000 and Mauritania shut the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in March 2009.

“Europe is extremely confused at the moment,” Tal said. “After the Arab Spring Europe invested huge resources in the Middle East… it tried everything, but today is unsure about whether it has any real influence. Following the euphoria [of the Arab Spring] came European disillusionment.”

The challenge of diplomacy in France

The convergence of groups from France’s extreme left with Islamist groups on the right poses an unusual challenge for Israel’s diplomats in Paris. Tal, who considers himself a staunch believer in “classic diplomacy,” says that open and candid conversation about Israel with a broad swath of French society could boost Israel’s image as a modern democracy, even if an imperfect one.

“I am not perfect, but neither are my interlocutors,” Tal said.

Zvi Tal, the number two Israeli diplomat in Paris (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Zvi Tal, the number two Israeli diplomat in Paris (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

To promote its positions, Israel greatly relies on an infrastructure of France-Israel friendship societies spread across the country. These are often led by non-Jews. Yet in his daily work with French politicians, Tal identifies the greatest challenge within the younger generation.

“The older generation tends to idealize the relations between Israel and France before 1967. The leftist reminisce about the kibbutzim and the rightists about other things,” Tal said. “But the younger generation doesn’t have this sense of nostalgia. They start from scratch, from 1967 onward, like the Palestinian youth who only know the occupation. With them, the challenge is much greater.”

Staying on the same page as the locals

Serving in a country with a large and robust Jewish community like France’s, which is half a million-strong, isn’t always easy, admits Tal. French Jews are famously Zionistic and unabashedly opinionated when it comes to Israel. That fact amplifies Israel’s voice in public debates and rallies, but is sometimes problematic when the messages of the embassy and the community fall out of sync.

“The embassy is careful not to be viewed as intervening in the community’s internal affairs,” said Tal. “That’s not easy with such a large, active community with prominent members who maintain ties with Israel, including with influential Israelis.”

‘We find ourselves gently saying: With all due respect, as a foreign embassy we cannot always do what you as loyal citizens can’

Tal may have been hinting at Meyer Habib, a Jewish businessman and personal friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected a member of parliament last month as the representative of French citizens living outside the country. Netanyahu’s public endorsement of Habib’s candidacy in a promotional video intended for French expatriates living in Israel was criticized in France as unacceptable intervention in the country’s internal political affairs.

CRIF, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, has been increasingly wary of being seen as “Israel’s second embassy in France” in a country where communautarisme — a citizen’s preference of his social group over the state — is regarded with deep disdain. But Tal noted that President Francois Hollande was surprisingly understanding of the close Frenco-Jewish connection to Israel, as it was expressed — for instance — during Netanyahu’s visit with the Toulouse community last November.

“The community will comment on whether the embassy responded quickly enough or forcefully enough to events which it deems harmful to Israel,” Tal said. “We find ourselves gently saying, ‘With all due respect, we as a foreign embassy cannot always do what you as loyal citizens can. Our agenda is slightly different from yours.'”   

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