French cultural event attempts to mend rocky relationship with Israel

JERUSALEM – For one night, the skies above the Tel Aviv coastline came alight in a spectacular, unprecendented fireworks extravaganza that attracted hundreds of thousands of Israelis and was broadcast live on TV to the entire nation.

The Tuesday night display, along with a fashion show and an exhibit of white tents emblazoned with the word “peace,” marked the beginning of “Voila,” a three-month season of French cultural events in Israel. The gestures were part of a French effort to win over the hearts and minds of Israelis, who have increasingly come to see France as an adversary.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy continued the charm offensive on Wednesday, when, in a feel-good joint news conference with Tzipi Livni, his Israeli counterpart, he said: “France is a friend of Israel … with all our heart.”

Initially a strong ally, France was instrumental in establishing Israel’s nuclear program. But relations soured dramatically, particularly since 1967, when France imposed an arms embargo and began adopting more policies critical of Israel.

Many Israelis have long viewed France as biased in favor of the Palestinians, and reports of rising anti-Semitism toward the French Jewish community – at 600,000 the third-largest in the world – has only fanned the flames.

President Jacques Chirac, seen by many Israelis as unfairly pro-Arab, hasn’t traveled to Israel since 1996, when he angrily shouted at Israeli police and accused them of limiting his movements during a tour of Jerusalem’s holy sites.

The tension reached a high point in 2001, when Daniel Bernard, then France’s ambassador to England, used an expletive to describe Israel.

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon outraged Paris when he said France was home to “the wildest anti-Semitism” and urged French Jews to emigrate to Israel for their own safety.

But only a year later, Sharon’s visit to Paris began friendlier period in the relations between the countries. Both Douste-Blazy and Livni mentioned Sharon’s visit as a turning point.

Analysts say the last summer’s Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, coupled with the recent rise of the Islamic militant Hamas group, has influenced the French change of heart. Global terrorism and friction with its own Muslim minority has also swayed France’s perception of Israel.

Avi Pazner, a former Israeli ambassador to Paris, said the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a close Chirac confidante, was also a factor.

“The policy seen for many years tilting toward the Arabs was really not paying off,” Pazner said.

On the other hand, he said France appreciated Israel’s courageous step in Gaza.

“They saw that Israel was serious about the business of trying to build coexistence with our Palestinian neighbors and we weren’t just talking,” he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev confirmed the improvement in relations.

“Paris and Jerusalem are now diplomatically closer than we’ve seen at any time in recent history,” he said. “We have a common understanding of the challenges (in the region.)”

But the diplomatic warming has yet to percolate down to the people. Tuesday night’s fireworks, which cost $318,000 (250,000 euro), were the latest effort by the French to make that happen.

“The idea is connect on a people-to-people level, to celebrate the friendship between the French people and the Israeli people,” said Yael Avron, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Israel.

She said France recently purchased a $3.9 million (3 million euro) building in Tel Aviv that will house the French cultural center in Israel. She said the ambassador hoped Israelis left the fireworks show with the feeling that “the French are nice people.”

However, not everything was rosy. Security for the display caused massive traffic jams in Tel Aviv, and the airwaves were full of Israelis complaining Wednesday morning.

Israel and France still disagree on more substantive issues as well.

In meetings with Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday, Douste-Blazy said France opposed “unilateral decisions” regarding the future borders between Israel and the Palestinian areas.

Olmert has said he would like to renew peace talks with the Palestinians, but that appears unlikely following the election victory of Hamas. If peace efforts do not bear fruit quickly, Olmert said he plans to unilaterally withdraw from much of the West Bank, strengthen major settlement blocs and set Israel’s borders.

Douste-Blazy urged negotiations. “It’s unacceptable that a border declared unilaterally would be accepted by the world,” he said.

Douste-Blazy also called Hamas’ election victory legitimate, but remained committed to its international isolation, saying the group has to change its ways. “Hamas must give up violence in order to enter politics,” he said.

Despite any differences, both sides say relations have improved recently.

“Things seem to be changing, but you need time to rebuild confidence. This is what the countries are doing,” Pazner said. “There is a lot of healing to do. I feel we’re in the process of healing.”