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'In France, knowledge of the language is critical'

Parlez-who? Lapid’s pick for Paris posting pilloried for being sans French

Yael German is widely respected, but without mastery of the language and diplomatic experience, many experts question whether she is the right person for the important task

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Knesset member Yael German at a committee meeting in the Knesset on January 1, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Knesset member Yael German at a committee meeting in the Knesset on January 1, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Thirty-six French parliamentarians gathered in Jerusalem last month to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. One of the lawmakers, a non-Jewish MP with a long record of supporting Israel, begged the new prime minister to send an ambassador to fill the empty diplomatic post in Paris who could properly defend Israel, especially in the French press.

Bennett dodged the issue, saying the appointment was Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s call, a French source with knowledge of the meeting told The Times of Israel.

Lapid made his choice last week, tapping former health minister Yael German as Israel’s next envoy to France and saying that “German will do wonderful work representing Israel and its interests.”

German is talented and well-respected. After working in management roles in education and industry, she served for 15 years as the mayor of Herzliya. She entered the Knesset with Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party in 2013 and served as health minister from 2013 to 2014.

“She is fit for the job,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson told The Times of Israel. “She has a ton of experience, professional and personal. She knows French and by the time she gets to France, she will know even more.”

But despite the widespread regard for German as a person and as a minister, many commentators and politicians — both French and Israeli — argue that she is the wrong person at the wrong time for the sensitive diplomatic posting, particularly due to the fact that her familiarity with the French language is not quite ready for prime time.

“In France particularly, knowledge of the language is critical,” said Maia Sion-Tzidkiyahu, director of the program on Israel–Europe relations at Mitvim, a foreign policy think tank. “It’s critical for the ability of the ambassador to reach media outlets, for example.”

With France indicating a desire to improve relations with Jerusalem, the ambassador will play a critical role as Israel looks to take advantage of an opportunity to move closer to one of Europe’s most powerful countries, one that Lapid has been actively courting.

“It’s a sign of chutzpah,” said Haim Arik Messika, a French immigrant who is active in French Likud circles in Israel. “It’s chutzpah to send someone like this… Not only that she doesn’t speak French. She doesn’t understand the culture. She doesn’t understand at all the culture of French Jews, and that’s the worst.”

(L-R) Yesh Atid MK Yael German, party leader Yair Lapid and LGBT rights activist Idan Roll at a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 7, 2019. (Courtesy)

‘Knowledge of the language is critical’

With its influential position in the EU and on the United Nations Security Council, France’s importance to Israel goes well beyond the bilateral relationship. Currently, France is seen as flag-bearer for countries in the bloc that are harshly critical of Israel.

But that may soon change.

Eric Danon, France’s ambassador to Israel, told the visiting parliamentarians last month that President Emmanuel Macron intends to reset relations with Israel if he is re-elected in 2022, according to a diplomatic source with knowledge of the meeting.

While Macron and Lapid have a warm personal relationship, France’s foreign ministry — often referred to as the Quai d’Orsay — under Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has been especially critical of Israel.

In May, Le Drian said Israel was at risk of “long-lasting apartheid” if the Palestinians didn’t obtain their own state.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) meets with Blue and White MKs Benny Gantz (R) and Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on January 22, 2019. (Elad Malka)

But there have been some encouraging hints from French diplomats. According to diplomatic sources, the Quai d’Orsay has been shifting its attitude toward Israel somewhat since Lapid’s visit to Brussels in July.

France has expressed openness to re-establishing annual Association Council meetings between the EU and Israel, suspended since 2013.

Danon gave a surprisingly robust address during Bastille Day ceremonies on July 14, affirming the French-Israeli relationship and the joint effort to fight mutual security threats.

“We might have sometimes disagreed on the method,” he said, “but we stand together to fight simultaneously against the nuclear risk, the ballistic missile threat and the destabilizing actions of Iran in the region, and first of all in Lebanon, in Syria and in Iraq.”

President Isaac Herzog (L) and French Ambassador Eric Danon at a Bastille Day celebration, Jaffa, July 14, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Beyond more cooperation in fields like agriculture, technology, and education, a strengthened bilateral relationship could feature enhanced military ties, especially against Iran.

But experts say that having an ambassador who can speak the local tongue will be key to making the most of this opening, especially in France, where language is wrapped up in national pride. Despite the spokesperson’s claims, German herself admits that her French is less than superb.

“I understand a bit, but it is very difficult for me to speak,” she said in French, in a September 2019 interview. (Her name, which is pronounced with a hard “g,” has no direct connection to France’s powerful neighbor Germany).

“There no doubt she’s very well-regarded. I think she has a lot of credit,” said Sion-Tzidkiyahu. “But to appoint her as an ambassador, particularly to France, is problematic.”

German’s plans to focus on improving the French image of the Jewish state by promoting cultural cooperation will be hobbled by her inability to communicate, experts say.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attend a joint press conference at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, on June 25, 2021. (GONZALO FUENTES/POOL/AFP)

“How will she do that in English?” asked Sion-Tzidkiyahu. “If that’s her goal, it’s a guarantee that it is going to be extremely problematic.”‘

German declined to comment for this article, saying that she still has to receive additional confirmations before her appointment is final.

Past Israeli ambassadors to France also declined to comment.

“It’s a shame that they brought someone who doesn’t speak French or know the community,” said Gil Taieb, vice president of CRIF – Representative Council of Jews of France.

“To appear on television and radio stations in France, they don’t speak in English,” said Taieb. “They want someone who speaks in French, someone it will be easy for the journalists to speak with.”

Without the ability to appear in French media, German will spend most of her time dealing with French diplomats and other officials, said an Israeli academic familiar with French politics who asked to remain anonymous.

“But how are you going to talk to these people?” he asked. “If you go to the Quai d’Orsay, and meet with the director of Middle East, or the director-general of the Quai d’Orsay, if you don’t speak French perfectly and don’t understand the history of France and the mentality of the French diplomats, they’re not even going to look at you.”

“It’s something that Israelis don’t understand. Language for the French, and understanding the cultural mode, is something you need in order to be a diplomat in France,” he declared.

“Language is a very, very sensitive issue for the French. It’s a matter of national pride,” he continued.

Some trace French prickliness over language back to France’s decline as a world power — and the UK’s steady rise — after Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

“It has hurt their pride since then,” said the Israeli academic.

Israel’s leadership has shown insensitivity to this issue recently. At the July Bastille Day event, both President Isaac Herzog and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar spoke in English.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with 26 EU foreign ministers in Brussels, July 12, 2021. (European Union)

“It was just putting salt on their wounds,” said the academic. “You don’t do that. You don’t speak in English at a French event.”

“I guess Lapid doesn’t understand France either…” he said. “It’s an insult.”

Others were more optimistic about the selection of German.

“The language isn’t the most important thing,” said the Foreign Ministry spokesperson. “She has many other things. I think that at the end of her tenure, the Jewish community in France will say thank you that Yael was there. She is an impressive woman with a record of accomplishments and wonderful interpersonal skills.”

“All of the diplomats speak English,” explained Arie Bensemhoun, executive director of ELNET-France, an organization that promotes a strong Israel-Europe relationship. “It won’t be a problem for her to conduct her mission here in France in English.”

French parliamentarians meet President Isaac Herzog (right) in Jerusalem, July 20, 2021 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“It would be more complex when it comes to the media,” he allowed. “When we have crises we need to speak to the journalists on the TV or the radio.”

Still, said Bensemhoun, German “can compensate with her personality, the way she conducts her mission, her experience.”

“It’s the choice of the minister. We accept it as it is. We are going to do everything we can to make her tenure in France a success because we need it.”

“We have to work with whoever Israel sends,” Taieb said in a similar vein. “It’s the ambassador of Israel, not the ambassador of French Jews.”

“If she needs us, we are with her,” he pledged.

In response to a Ynet report last Thursday, Lapid’s office said in a statement that knowing French was not a criterion for the job. A source in the office told Ynet that the appointment was intended to convey to the French the importance that Lapid attaches to ties with the country — as he was sending a close confidant.

German remained in the Knesset with Lapid until March 2020, when she resigned due to health issues that included a stroke and cancer. She has told the press that she has since been given a clean bill of health.

“What is important is that the French know that Lapid sent to France someone 100 percent ‘of his own’ and that is the importance he attributes to France and its ties with Israel,” the source said. “German can pick up the phone directly to Lapid and he will answer it.”

Who can defend Israel properly?

But German was not always with Lapid. She started her political career with Meretz, a party far to the left of the centrist Yesh Atid.

Messika, the French immigrant activist, said that French Jews are a unique blend — “a Sephardi heart and an Ashkenazi mind” — and are on average well to the right of German.

“If the goal of the Foreign Ministry is to send the worst person there so that no one will want to speak to her or interview her, then believe me, they’ve accomplished the goal one hundred percent,” Messika declared.

Some sources said that the criticism of German comes from right-wing French Jewish leaders — including allies of former Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu — who are seeking to damage Lapid, and not from the rank and file, who are more diverse.

Others maintained that the French Jewish community in general is not happy about the pick.

“It seems strange that Israel appoints someone that doesn’t speak good French and that comes from Meretz, while French Jewry is seen as very right-wing. The divide between French Jews and Israel will probably continue to widen under Yael German’s leadership,” predicted David Allouche, a French-Israeli who founded the Young Diplomats network. “It clearly seems to be a compensation for Yael German after she was denied the position of ambassador in the UK, after [Tzipi] Hotovely refused to give up her position. In terms of logic, this appointment does not make any sense for most of the French Jews.”

German said Lapid had initially offered her the post of ambassador to the UK, replacing incumbent Hotovely, who was appointed by the previous government. But Hotovely, who signed a three-year contract, refused to give up the position.

A man holds a placard during a protest organized by Jewish associations, who say justice has not been done for the killing of French Jewish woman Sarah Halimi, at Trocadero Plaza near Eiffel Tower in Paris, April 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

French Jews are “livid,” said the Israeli academic. “They thought that finally after over ten years of having somebody who barely speaks French, finally they would get somebody who can represent Israel properly.

“They feel like Israel keeps sending them people who are unable to do that.”

Yossi Gal, an Avigdor Liberman appointee who was ambassador to France and Monaco in 2010-2015, did not speak French, and his successor, Aliza Bin-Noun, spoke well enough to do interviews but not to debate.

Israel Ambassador to France Aliza Bin-Noun 2015 (CC BY-SA EREZ LICHTFELD, Wikimedia Commons)

Diplomat Ronit Ben Dor, who will be German’s deputy in Paris, speaks “less than mediocre French,” according to the academic.

“Number one and number two barely speak French,” he lamented. “This goes to show how pathetic we are.”

There was also concern about German’s lack of diplomatic training.

Israel’s embassy in France is large and complex. In addition to dealing with the bilateral relationship, and France’s positions in the EU and UN, the embassy houses Israel’s representative to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and to the Council of Europe.

“She has the governmental experience,” said Sion-Tzidkiyahu. “But she doesn’t have the Foreign Ministry experience.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and his Lebanese counterpart Nassif Hitti, not shown hold a news conference following their meeting at the Lebanese foreign ministry in Beirut, Lebanon, July. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

“It would have been better to invest more professional thought. The foreign service is a professional service,” said Sion. “The appointment of political appointees sometimes can project a belittling attitude toward the foreign service, as if anyone can step into the job of ambassador.”

Two names have come up repeatedly as preferred options.

Foreign Ministry diplomat Daniel Saada, a native French speaker, filled the ambassador role on a temporary basis since 2019, including during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May. But as a professional diplomat, he is due to be transferred after completing his four-year post in Paris.

Emmanuel Navon speaks fluent French, Hebrew, and English, and holds a PhD in International Relations. But as a former Likud member and Gideon Saar ally, he is identified with the Israeli right, and is not close to Lapid.

Previous ambassador Bin-Noun left her post in 2019 and the embassy has been run by Saada since then.

“Lapid wanted to give her a respected, appropriate position, in one of the major embassies,” Sion-Tzidkiyahu said of German. “I think France is not the right place.”

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