France set to blacklist Hezbollah, politician vows

In Israel, opposition leader Copé says Paris waiting for ‘convincing evidence’ of Lebanese group’s role in Burgas bombing

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

French opposition leader Jean-François Copé speaking in Tel Aviv, April 17, 2013 (photo credit: DR)
French opposition leader Jean-François Copé speaking in Tel Aviv, April 17, 2013 (photo credit: DR)

France is willing to add Hezbollah to the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations if a Bulgarian investigation into a terror attack there confirms that the Shiite group was indeed responsible, a leading French politician said while on a visit to Israel.

Jean-François Copé, the leader of the country’s largest opposition party and a likely future presidential contender, also reiterated Paris’s absolute commitment to Israel’s security in a future peace deal with the Palestinians and said that “all options need to remain on the table” when it comes to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambition.

The matter of blacklisting Hezbollah “is a great debate, but as you know, [French President] François Hollande himself recently took a position on this during the CRIF dinner after the investigation into the attack in Bulgaria,” Copé told The Times of Israel. “He said that if there is convincing evidence, Europe, and naturally also France, would have to draw the consequences of that, and that’s where we are standing today.”

Speaking last month at the annual dinner of the CRIF, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, President Hollande said, “The Bulgarian authorities said — and they need to confirm it — that they have proof that Hezbollah members were involved in the horrible attack of Burgas last July, which targeted Israeli tourists. I state here: Europe needs to be ready to draw conclusions from this all.”

On July 18, 2012, a blast in the Bulgarian resort town of Burgas killed five Israelis and a local bus driver. In February, Europol Director Rob Wainwright said forensic evidence and intelligence sources pointed to Hezbollah’s involvement in the bombing. Earlier this month, Bulgaria’s former interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov made the “grounded assumption that the militant wing of Hezbollah is the mastermind and perpetrator of the terrorist act in Burgas.”

Israel, the US, the UK and other states, including Egypt and Bahrain, have added the Shiite group to their lists of terrorist organizations, but the EU has so far refused to do so. Officially labeling Hezbollah a terrorist entity would significantly hamper its ability to operate. But doing so requires unanimity among the EU’s 27 member states, a consensus whose main obstacle is France’s objections.

However, after a Bulgarian police investigation earlier this year blamed Hezbollah for the bombing, calls for the union to rethink its stance grew louder. Such demands further intensified after a Cypriot court sentenced to four years in prison a Hezbollah operative convicted of a plot to attack Israeli tourists in the Mediterranean island nation.

But European diplomats say that neither the Bulgarian nor the Cypriot authorities have provided sufficient tangible proof tying Hezbollah to the bombing or the attempted attack.

Copé, the French opposition party leader, was in Israel last week to participate in a campaign rally for Valerie Hoffenberg, who is running for a spot in the French parliament reserved for representatives of citizens living in Israel and other Mediterranean states. A Jew of Romanian and Algerian descent and a former minister, Copé currently heads the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the center-right party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. He is considered France’s most powerful politician outside the government and a potential presidential hopeful for the 2017 elections.

During a speech at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center, Copé, 48, alluded to his Jewish roots in describing himself as someone “who will never forget his family history and his origins,” and quoted a phrase coined by Sarkozy, saying he is “a small Frenchman of mixed blood.” The former French president’s father was born in Hungary, and his maternal grandfather was a Greek Jew.

Copé affirmed France’s relationship with Israel as “essential” and founded on deep appreciation and historical and emotional ties. “This extraordinary people showcases the human genius,” he said about Israelis, adding that there was a lot of admiration for Israel in the world. He came out in favor of the creation of a democratic Palestinian state, but said that, “at the same time, respect for Israel’s security is a crucial element, and in this respect France’s position has been constant.”

“The questions of Israel’s security is not secondary, it’s primary, it’s capital, it’s non-negotiable,” he said to raucous applause from the 500 or so Franco-Israeli audience-members. “It’s always easy to have great theories from afar, but on the ground it’s not always like that,” he added, criticizing Frenchmen and other Europeans who too easily condemn Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. “When one is scared for his life, when one worries about his parents and his children, when one fears for his country, one doesn’t like to hear the ‘good advice’ of those who know everything.”

The international community should be careful about providing the Syrian opposition with arms, as they could easily fall into the wrong hands, Copé said. Sarkozy “was extremely engaged all throughout his presidency” in the international debate about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the politician said, “and I am sorry that during the last 11 months we’ve been hearing less of the French voice.” 2013 will be absolutely crucial in solving the Iranian crisis, and the international community must “show absolute determination,” he added. “All options need to stay on table.”

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