The Sarkozy Visit: A Breath of Fresh (and Perfumed) Air at a Difficult Time

Those of us who attended AJC’s Annual Meeting and heard the remarkable gala dinner speech by French Prime Minister François Villon, and those who were privileged to hear or read the text of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s heartwarming welcome to Israeli President Shimon Peres in Paris earlier this year, need not have been surprised by the extraordinary depth of admiration, commitment, and support for Israel that Sarkozy expressed in his Knesset speech on Monday. Here was the leader of a country once considered almost hostile now putting forward, in no uncertain way, the proposition that Israel is—and must remain—a miracle, as well as a member in good standing of the community of democratic nations. Thus he was laying to rest, in the process, the fears that the “West” is all but ready to give up on the Jewish nation-state and opt for other solutions. Distinctive national identities are not necessarily passé—as the Irish voters recently proved—and in our context, it is premature, at the least, to warn of a tide of international support for the one-state solution replacing the Zionist project anytime soon.

There were other encouraging signs of a major shift in French and European attitudes toward Israel—symbolic acts indicating technological and economic cooperation (Sarkozy and Peres drove together in the first of Shai Agassi’s electric cars—a French-made Megan with an Israeli-made engine, aimed at conquering the world market and “doing away with the addiction to oil”) as well as substantive talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his guest about Iran, among other crucial issues. At the personal level, everything was colored by Sarkozy’s new wife, Carla Bruni—like him, taking pride in her Jewish origins—whose charm and beauty left their mark; indeed, to judge by the popular papers, it would seem as if her presence among us was the most important aspect of the visit.

And yet it must also be recognized that the visit, planned well in advance, came at an awkward moment—in fact, one of the most unedifying nadirs of Israeli politics in living memory. While enjoying the company of his guest, Olmert was also feverishly playing high-stakes political poker with his most important partner-turned-rival, Defense Minister Ehud Barak; and their struggle, in turn, was reflected in some highly delicate aspects of Israeli policy, including the two hypersensitive negotiations over the fate of our abducted soldiers, with Hezbollah and Hamas:

  • Barak and his chief assistant for strategic affairs, Amos Gil’ad, have led the effort to negotiate a “calm” (tahdi’ah) with Hamas, through Egyptian mediation—even if the question of Gil’ad Shalit’s release was to be finessed at this point in time and handled through a separate channel. When the depth of public anger over this course of action—which even led Shalit’s parents to appeal to the Supreme Court, charging that the decision-making procedure was flawed—became apparent, Barak and Olmert slid into a shadowy blame game (with well-aimed leaks from both sides), which added to the general public dismay.
  • Meanwhile, a deal was being finalized with Hezbollah that would have involved the return of our two soldiers (in all likelihood, no longer alive; true to their ghoulish tradition of trading in rumors and in body parts, Hezbollah has never provided any clue as to their situation) for the release of a foul murderer, Samir Quntar, and a few Hezbollah fighters caught during the 2006 war, and a later gesture of releasing some Palestinians. As the point of decision drew near, however, some in the intelligence community warned Olmert that paying such a price for bodies would reduce the incentive of terrorists, next time, to keep their captives alive. The prime minister began to hedge, and the military rabbinate was asked to consider the prospect of declaring them dead—based on specific intelligence, but no hard evidence. This was done, perhaps, to get Hezbollah to lower their demands; but again it had a devastating public resonance internally, with the flames further fanned by the Barak-Olmert rivalry.

By Wednesday morning, the crisis was half-over: Olmert’s Kadima Party and Barak’s Labor reached an agreement, under which the primaries in Kadima would be held on July 10 (as Barak had demanded—before the cross-examination of Morris Talansky, i.e., with Olmert still under a cloud); and the Labor Party would not support Likud and other opposition forces in their bid to disband the Knesset (after Olmert had threatened to fire all of them from their posts if they did). Sarkozy had left the evening before—in somewhat undignified haste, due to a shot fired from the gun of a border policeman (apparently, an unexplained act of suicide). Now the “two Ehuds” need to go back, as best they can, to the “real world” questions we face:

  1. The Gaza “calm” is fragile—or worse, volatile—as demonstrated by the salvo of Qassam rockets fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad activists into Sderot, wounding two people. PIJ refuses to accept what Hamas has consented to, namely, a ceasefire in Gaza, even if Israel continues to operate against terror networks in the West Bank. (A PIJ leader was killed in Nablus on Tuesday.) The Israeli decision was not to respond in kind but to keep the crossings closed for a while. But if the pattern persists, the present arrangements could quickly collapse.
  2. The Iranian challenge is mounting, and the EU decision on further sanctions—while certainly welcome in itself—serves to demonstrate just how useless the dialogue with Tehran has been until now. As Israel keeps all options open, including, quite openly, the prospect of military action, it becomes ever more necessary to sustain national unity and a capacity to make decisions and stand by them—which to many in Israel, in high places as well as among the public at large, now seems all but impossible.
Moreover, we need broader visions; and in this context, it should be noted that Sarkozy brought with him not only a beautiful wife and a firm message about France standing with Israel against those who might seek to destroy the Jewish state. He also extended a formal invitation to take part in the event on July 13 (just before France’s Bastille Day) launching the “Union for the Mediterranean.” Attention is being drawn to this meeting because it may well be attended by both Olmert and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria; but there is more than a “photo opportunity” at stake. The Mediterranean idea—perhaps replacing the outdated conceptual framework of the “Middle East,” a term that bespeaks a Western (Paris, London, Washington) perspective—may yet come to represent an alternative to the failure of pan-Arabism and the dangerous, deadly prospects offered by Islamist totalitarianism, in its Iranian or other versions. But for this to succeed, we would need leadership—not only in Paris, but in Jerusalem, and throughout the Mediterranean basin—able to rise above the petty quarrels of the day.
Copyright 2013/2014 AJC