How Netanyahu’s interview with France’s TF1 widened the Jerusalem-Paris divide

PM’s use of hard-right rhetoric on the eve of EU Parliament elections made some French viewers wince, adding to ire that saw Israeli companies banned from Eurosatory arms fair

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) on French TV network TF1 on May 30, 2024. (Screenshot/YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) on French TV network TF1 on May 30, 2024. (Screenshot/YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s interview last Thursday on France’s TF1 television station made some French viewers wince. In the eyes of many in the French government and public, his comments echoed the rhetoric of far-right politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour and were seen as meddling in local politics.

One of Netanyahu’s comments, which may have sounded unremarkable to the Israeli listener, was almost a copy-paste of recent remarks by right-wing leaders in France: “I say: Our victory is your victory. Our victory is the victory of Israel against antisemitism. It is the victory of Judeo-Christian civilization against barbarism. It is the victory of France.”

To many French ears — in a country in which 10 percent of the population is Muslim, and days before the European Parliament elections open on June 6, in which Le Pen is expected to achieve an easy victory — this was seen as a provocation.

Le Pen’s National Rally party, which is strongly opposed to immigration, is currently the largest and strongest opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron. Western diplomats have told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site, that Netanyahu’s language was seen as a direct appeal to right-wing conservative voters in France, in an attempt to influence them ahead of the European Parliament elections.

“He used the phrasing of the far-right politicians. France is not America, it’s not proper to go on the air and interfere with internal politics. You won’t see the French president or the French prime minister appearing on Israeli media to push their political agendas,” sources familiar with the French reactions said.

Defense fair ban

After Netanyahu’s interview with TF1, French authorities announced their decision to ban Israeli defense firms from exhibiting at the Eurosatory 2024, a major security and defense fair.

Over 70 Israeli firms were surprised to hear that they would not be permitted to exhibit at the Paris event. They’d heard there were tensions, but were convinced that a phone call between Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his French counterpart would resolve them.

Still, while some drew a direct connection between Netanyahu’s interview and the ban, this was not the case. In fact, the French deliberations about barring the Israeli exhibitors took place before the interview.

There were several reasons for the ban, including Israel’s perceived failure to respond to French requests to send more humanitarian aid to Gaza, France’s opposition to Israel’s military operation in Rafah and Netanyahu’s refusal to discuss plans for governance in Gaza after the war. However, the interview meant there would be no last-minute change of heart.

Netanyahu’s “our victory” comments were not the only part of the interview that riled the residents of the Elysée Palace.

In another moment from the TF1 interview that may have rattled French viewers, Netanyahu brought up a deadly French airstrike on a wedding in Mali in 2021. The French and Malian militaries, who cooperated in the fight against al-Qaeda, claimed to have targeted terrorists only, but a United Nations report later found that 19 of the 22 people killed in the strike were civilians.

“It’s a tragedy, and it’s something that happens in war, but I won’t call Macron a war criminal. I won’t say the French [killed civilians] on purpose, and neither do we,” Netanyahu said, bringing up the 2021 incident to contextualize the IDF’s conduct amid the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s penchant for historical comparisons — including comparing discussions about Israel in the world courts in The Hague to the infamous Dreyfus trial — may be good for scoring points on a debate stage, but when spoken by an Israeli leader to a French media outlet, the result was also distinctly undiplomatic.

During the prime minister’s interview, thousands demonstrated against Israel outside the TF1 studio.

Canceling Israel’s participation in the arms fair wasn’t the only tool that France has been pondering for use against Israel of late. In February, France announced sanctions against 28 Israelis who were accused of committing violent acts against Palestinians in the West Bank, and it is currently considering adding far-right ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich to that list.

The Lepers’ League

Being barred from the defense expo was a blow to the Israeli defense industry. From a conversation with senior officials in the field, it appears that the majority of the damage will be borne by smaller companies.

Rafael, Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries, the country’s three largest defense companies, will be less affected by the ban on their participation in the Paris exhibition. All 70 companies that planned to go to Paris in June had already paid the hefty cost of their stands, along with dispatching security on special flights. That money is gone.

Visitors stand at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) booth at the Eurosatory international land and air defense and security trade fair, in Villepinte, a northern suburb of Paris, on June 13, 2022. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

France is the second largest arms exporter in the world (after the US), having overtaken Russia in the last two years.

The fact that such a prominent weapons exporter is blocking Israeli companies from participating in an arms exhibition sends a strong message to other countries, exhibitions and business relationships.

“They’ve relegated us to the Lepers’ League,” a senior official at one of Israel’s leading arms companies told Zman Yisrael.

Another reason the French banned the Israeli exhibitors relates to anti-Israel demonstrations expected to take place near the trade fair.

“For seven months, the French have been telling the Israelis that they must increase humanitarian aid [to Gaza], that they must take care of the [Palestinian] civilian population, that it is impossible to continue without a plan for the day after, that they can’t wage an endless war — and no one in Israel is willing to listen,” a diplomatic source told Zman Yisrael.

“The French are fed up. One of the tools is canceling participation in the exhibition. There are other tools they are considering to convey the message to Israel,” the source said.

Israel and France’s mutual trade relations in the weapons arena are not substantial. France has sold around $225 million worth of weapons to Israel over the last decade. These are not large arms deals.

Israeli exports to France aren’t significant either, given the country’s strict regulatory process that aims to protect the local industry. In this respect, Israel’s defense industries are a business competitor for France.

At the beginning of the war in Gaza, sparked by Hamas’s October 7 massacre, France sold components to Israel for use in machine guns. French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said at the time that it was a sale of spare parts, under a license for a deal that had been completed before the war.

A few years ago, French BDS activists protested against local arms company Thales providing parts for Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone, which was used by Israel during Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza in 2014. The supply was discontinued by the French Defense Ministry in the years following the demonstrations.

Illustrative – An Israel Air Force Hermes unmanned aerial vehicle flies over Israel on June 28, 2011. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

While industry officials decried the effects of the Eurosatory 2024 ban, others said it was not likely to have a significant impact.

Prof. Daniel Shek, a former Israeli ambassador to France, told Zman Yisrael that he doesn’t think the Israeli arms industry will be significantly harmed by the French decision.

“The relationship between the Israel Defense Forces, the French army and French companies is bigger than this decision. The defense sector is less exposed to ups and downs in [diplomatic] relations.”

“I think their decision to ban the Israeli exhibitors is a sting to Israel, but it won’t harm the industry. They also had massive headaches organizing security for the Israeli booths and the [concerns over] demonstrations against the exhibition — and that was the main consideration,” Shek said.

“In terms of the message that France conveys to other countries, I think that doesn’t bother them. And in any case, arms deals don’t rise and fall on attendance at exhibitions.”

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