"'Unless it is built on a foundation of truth, peace will founder on the jagged rocks of Middle Eastern realities."
Binyamin Netanyahu

With the blatantly pro-Arab bias displayed by French President Jacques Chirac during his recent Middle East tour, few reasonable observers will wonder why Israel is so opposed to an enhanced French role in the regional peace initiatives. A closer look at France's Middle East record may further clarify the issue.

BEHIND MUCH of Jewish suspicion of the French agenda today stands the legacy of anti-Semitism and the Second World War, when Marshal Philippe Pétain's collaborationist Vichy government, in alliance with the Nazis, deported some 80 000 Jews to the extermination camps.

The French ruling elite have taken pains to distance their country from its Nazi-leaning past. France's subsequent support for the PLO cause seems bizarre, then, when one recalls Palestinian Arab backing for the Nazis. Remember the Mufti of Jerusalem's words, in a letter to Adolf Hitler after the Nazis occupied France in 1940: "'[I wish] to convey to his Excellency the Great Chief and Leader my sincerest felicitations on the occasion of the great political and military triumphs which he has just achieved."

In the decades following WWII, France, deeply suspicious of Arab nationalism, was a major supporter of the Zionist state, and helped Israel establish its nuclear capability. After Israel, Britain and France collaborated in the 1956 Sinai campaign, ties remained strong. The Alliance France-Israël, involving prominent French political figures, flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While France fought the Algerian insurrection, Israel remained a key to Middle Eastern stability in French eyes.

By 1963, however, once France ended the imbroglio in Algeria, President Charles de Gaulle began to reassess the French Middle Eastern policy. Deciding the future lay with the Arabs, he turned gradually against Israel. At the end of May 1967, a week before the Six Day War broke out, De Gaulle ordered all French military aid to Israel stopped.

Nowhere was France's embracing of the Arab Muslim world more clearly seen than in its relations with Iraq.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's first visit to a Western capital was to Paris in 1972, when he agreed to sell France huge quantities of oil. Jacques Chirac, then prime minister, paid a trip to Baghdad two years later.

France quickly became Iraq's largest weapons supplier after the Soviet Union. In 1976, Chirac was centrally involved in providing Saddam with a nuclear reactor at Osirak. Israel bombed it in a pre-emptive strike in 1981.

Through the Iraq-Iran war, France continued to supply Iraq with Mirage F1 fighters, Exocet anti-ship missiles, and equipment to improve the accuracy and range of Scud missiles. Just a year before the Gulf War, French Defence Minister (and founder of the Iraqi-French Friendship Association) Jean-Pierre Chevènement, visited Baghdad and told Saddam he planned "'to raise our bilateral relations to a higher level".

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Francois Mitterand took a lukewarm approach to French involvement in the US-led coalition against Saddam. He sent emissaries to 24 countries to assure their governments French participation was purely defensive. Facing unease from his Arab-leaning colleagues (particularly Chirac and Chevènement) Mitterand was careful not to be seen as too cosy an ally of the US against Iraq. Only after the French Embassy in occupied Kuwait was raided and four French citizens kidnapped, did Mitterand take a firmer line against Saddam.

This year's renewed spate of belligerence from Baghdad has again shown up French vacillation. The benefits of Paris' opposition to September's US missile strikes against Saddam are clear. A recent article in The Jerusalem Post quoted Iraq's Oil Minister Amir Rasheed as saying: "'Friendly countries who have supported us, like France and Russia, will certainly be given priority" when the lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq are awarded after the oil embargo is lifted. And the London Mail on Sunday reported in November that Western intelligence services had learned French companies had signed multi-million dollar contracts to help rearm Iraq, among other things, in exchange for oil.

For more than a decade, French interests in Middle East peace diplomacy took backstage, the result of Arab perceptions that the former Socialist government was too friendly towards Israel. At the same time, then President Mitterand was not at pains to challenge US leadership.

In contrast, Chirac's 18-month presidency has seen a return to the French illusion of superpower status, last seen during the days of his model and hero De Gaulle. Chirac took bold steps to reassert French influence in the world, and in particular, in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, Chirac made his intentions clear in a speech delivered at Cairo University, where he raised the possibility of France as an alternative to the US as peace broker. He made it clear the Arabs would benefit from such a development, the US being seen as too pro-Israel.

France played a key role in cobbling together a truce between Israel and Hizb'Allah after Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon in April-May, which won Paris a seat on a committee subsequently set up to monitor the ceasefire. Iran in particular had pushed hard for acceptance by the various parties of French participation.

The bottom line in French Middle East policy is economic. France, like Germany and other EU members, has not hidden its eagerness to expand business with Arab and Islamic states, including those targeted by US sanctions, such as Libya, Iran and Iraq. Syria also offers a lucrative market for French goods, including technology and weapons of mass destruction.

"A History of Israel" Howard Sachar (Knopf, New York, 1991)
"The Gulf Conflict" L. Freedman and E. Karsh (Faber & Faber, London, 1993)
"A Place Among the Nations" Binyamin Netanyahu (Bantam, New York, 1993)
"The Myth of the Jew in France" Henry H. Weinberg (Mosaic Press, Ontario)

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