France does not mean to threaten Israel, but a move to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank would be considered a “serious” violation of international law and would inevitably have negative consequences for bilateral relations, Paris’s ambassador in Tel Aviv said in an interview.
“There are violations of international law of different degrees of severity, and an annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlements would be considered a serious one,” Eric Danon told The Times of Israel. “This qualification implies that there would be consequences, as it would not be considered ‘serious’ otherwise.”
In an hour-and-a-half long interview conducted via Zoom, Danon also explained why Paris is not currently considering blacklisting Hezbollah, and how he surprisingly became his country’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, defying longstanding French diplomatic dogma that said that Jews should never represent Paris in the Jewish state due to dual loyalty concerns.
France, like most European countries, has been very outspoken in its opposition to an Israeli annexation. On April 23, French Ambassador to the United Nations Nicolas de Rivière told the Security Council that such a move would “constitute a blatant violation of international law,” could “not pass unchallenged and shall not be overlooked in our relationship with Israel.”
Many observers understood this wording to imply a stern warning, including of possible sanctions against Israel. But Danon said his colleague’s statement should not be read as a menace.
“Let me clarify the wording: There is no such thing as a ‘threat.’ There are reactions to statements issued by Israel, should [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] announcements [about his intentions to annex] be implemented,” he said.
“France has always promoted a vision of international relations based on the rule of law and on negotiations, and not on unilateral actions,” he went on. “Therefore, honestly, there is nothing new in France’s position. There was simply a need to reaffirm this position because for the first time, annexation was included in the coalition agreement and it seems that the deadline is approaching fast.”
Like the European Union, the French government has vehemently condemned Israeli plans for settlement expansion, but so far not reacted to them with any kind of sanctions.
But “annexation is different,” Danon said. “You cannot compare a tender for a new neighborhood in a settlement — which we consider a bad thing, indeed a violation of international law — with annexation. Annexation is much more serious — it’s a declaration that this is now Israeli territory. That’s entirely different.”
Danon, 63, was one of 11 European ambassadors to Israel who in May filed a so-called demarche with the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem protesting the planned annexation. President Emmanuel Macron recently also sent a personal letter to Netanyahu warning against advancing such a move.
But Danon, a veteran diplomat who entered the Quai d’Orsay more than 30 years ago, declined to discuss which concrete steps Paris would take if Israel went ahead with its annexation plan.
“I will not elaborate further about something that has not happened yet,” he said. “We shall see what effectively happens and what will be the response, in particular at the European level.”
No plans to ban Hezbollah
Danon has studied terrorism since the 1970s and is considered an expert in international security and disarmament. But he did not seem bothered by the fact that France continues to refuse to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, a step other European countries have taken in recent years.
We have not identified a particular event that would prompt us to change our position on Hezbollah
Following the Netherlands and the UK, Germany on April 30 outlawed Hezbollah activities, ending its previous policy of differentiating between the group’s military and political wings. France currently sees no reason to follow suit, according to Danon.
“The mere fact that the Germans have changed their position does not necessarily mean that we have to change our position as well,” he said.
“You would have to ask them what moment or event triggered their change of positions,” Danon continued. “There were reports in the press about a possible terror attack planned in Germany. Maybe this played a part? But really, to avoid speculation, you would have to ask the Germans directly as to the reasons behind this decision. For our part, we have not identified a particular event that would prompt us to change our position.”
Danon was referring to reports that Berlin changed its policy vis-a-vis Hezbollah after Israel’s Mossad spy agency, after a months-long operation to assess the group’s operations in Germany, informed local authorities of the existence of warehouses in the south of the country where the Beirut-based group kept materials used to make explosives.
Israeli intelligence was also said to have handed over details of key individuals in Hezbollah’s operations in Germany, including networks used to launder cash and transfer millions of euros into the terror group’s bank accounts as well as to fund activities within the country.
Germany’s official reason for outlawing the Iranian-backed group was that it violates criminal law and “opposes the concept of international understanding.”
Hezbollah denies Israel’s right to exist and “supports the armed terrorist fight” against the Jewish state, Germany’s interior ministry said at the time, adding that the organization can be expected to continue planning terror attacks against Israel and Israeli interests abroad.
French aliyah in post-pandemic times? Could go up or down
Danon, the son of Egyptian Jews who immigrated to France a few years before he was born, also discussed the prospects of the coronavirus pandemic leading to an increase in the number of French Jews who want to move to Israel.
As opposed to some Israeli officials who predict a massive wave of aliyah in the aftermath of the current health crisis — including outgoing minister for Diaspora affairs Tzipi Hotovely — the French ambassador said he had no reason to believe a surge of immigration to Israel was in the offing. In fact, the figures could go down, he said.
“I don’t have any indicators showing that aliyah is going up. If anything, in recent years it has decreased after a peak in 2015-2016, following the terror attacks in France,” he said.
“Aliyah is such an intimate and personal decision, drawing its motivation from a mix of reasons that often overlap: religion, fear of anti-Semitism and a feeling of insecurity. About fifty percent of aliyahs are triggered by a feeling of insecurity. There are also positive drives such as the idea that Israel, being the startup nation, will offer a better future to the family.”
Due to the coronavirus, which hit France and the French Jewish community very hard, “there are additional factors of uncertainty,” Danon said. “Cross-border circulation has been almost stopped. Henceforth, there might be a catch-up effect when the restrictions are lifted. On the other hand, the dire straits from an economical perspective can deter aliyahs, as settling and finding a job [in Israel] under those circumstances can appear challenging,” he went on.
I don’t have any indicators showing that aliyah is going up. If anything, in recent years it has decreased
“So all in all, I’d be most cautious before predicting whether the number is going to increase or decrease,” he said. “This crisis generates — and will continue to create — a high level of uncertainty and complexity. So we shall see what happens.”
Danon, a father of five, took up his post in Tel Aviv in September 2019 after having visited the country only “a couple of times” to attend security conferences. “Being posted here is a different experience and I feel a strong connection with this wonderful country,” he said. “And as far as political analysis for my capital is concerned, it’s a fascinating period to be in Israel. I love being here.”
While evidently proud of being France’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, Danon stressed that his personal story has no bearing on his diplomatic work.
“Maybe my family background impacts the level of empathy I feel for the Israeli people,” he offered. “Everyone tells me that my relationships with Israelis are different from those of my predecessors. I wouldn’t be the best judge of that, but should my style be different, the bottom line is that it does not change the substance of my missions.”
Given the longstanding French tradition to not appoint Jews to ambassadorships in Israel, Danon did not even think of applying for the post, he said. “But then I was offered this assignment, and I immediately responded: ‘I would be most honored.’”
Why did the French Foreign Ministry suddenly change its policy?
“I am not sure that the Foreign Ministry itself would have changed it, but the president of the republic changed it,” the ambassador replied. “Franco-Israeli relations have evolved, and he [Macron] himself has made several unprecedented symbolic gestures. Something is definitely happening in our bilateral relations, and I am absolutely thrilled to serve here.”