Lundi 22 Avril 2019  

N°124 - Quatrième trimestre 2018

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Diplomatie & Défense
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  S.E.M. / H.E. Nissim Zvili

Israel Opens Up New Vistas 

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a deadlock since the start of the second Intifada, Ariel Sharon’s government has tried to break the cycle of attacks and reprisals by building a “security fence” and pulling out of Gaza. The Ambassador of the State of Israel to France H.E. Nissim Zvili, one of the key forces behind the Oslo Accords, shares his thoughts on recent Israeli initiatives and the challenges facing his country.

The Diplomatic Letter: Mr. Ambassador, after being reelected as head of the Israeli government in January 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is again facing deep divisions within his coalition. There is even talk of forming another national unity government. Could you tell our readers what has prompted this, and give us your own assessment of the government’s actions?

H.E. Nissim Zvili: First of all, I believe that a country and a people in a state of permanent crisis – as is the case with the State of Israel – need all the internal unity they can marshal, to overcome problems that are often deep-reaching and to implement solutions that are often very difficult. The Israeli Prime Minister knows he needs to broaden his government coalition, in order to apply an approach he personally laid out just recently in accordance with democratic rules. You must understand that Ariel Sharon and the most moderate wing of the Israeli right have come to a new realization, which has led to an ideological shift. They have moved closer to a centrist line that recognizes: first, the need to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end through a political solution; second, the need to make broad concessions to make this political solution work; and third, the need to create a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, a point the Israeli right is having a particularly hard time accepting.
This change in perspective has raised problems for the Prime Minister, since he doesn’t have a majority within his own party, Likud. This has forced him to seek broader support from the center as well as the left, and to exclude the far right. If we find ourselves in a politically unstable situation right now, it’s because Likud hasn’t completely incorporated this ideological shift. The people of Israel, for their part, feel the need to create a national unity government that will allow us to push forward with the political process launched by Ariel Sharon. And while I am not sure Sharon’s party will be able to muster a majority, I don’t think that calling early elections serves anyone’s interests, since they wouldn’t change the balance of power between the main political groups in any major way. The Prime Minister is  working hard to ensure that most of the minority forces that back him in the Knesset remain in his camp. On one hand, he has secured the support of the left with his plan for withdrawing from Gaza. On the other, he has won the support of the ultraorthodox parties with his economic and social platforms. I don’t think this formula will keep on working forever, and that additional changes will have to be made before the end of 2005.
Ariel Sharon’s government has made very positive headway, especially in the area of security, despite the attack in Bersheva on August 31st after five months of relative calm. In fact, the State of Israel is the first country in the world to prove that terrorism can be combatted effectively. The repercussions of terrorism were cut 75% in 2004. This is a very significant feat, which is why it has been so hard for us to understand the international community’s criticism of the security fence, or the decisions of the International Court of Justice. Thanks to this measure, we have broken the attack-reprisal cycle and saved the lives of hundreds of people, Israelis and Palestinians alike. Consequently, there have been less total victims on both sides in 2004. The contested location of the security fence could perhaps be debated, but the fence is key to the success of our battle against terrorism. Israel’s government and security forces have good reason to be pleased with it, even if it has not been a complete and total success.

T.D.L.: The Israeli economy started to rebound in 2003, after two years of recession. How can the Israeli government create new jobs and provide social services, operating within the austerity budget adopted for 2004? With domestic investment continuing to lag, what advantages does your country offer foreign investors?

H.E.N.Z.: The Sharon government’s ability to surmount the economic crisis is its second biggest achievement, after the battle on terrorism. For the first time since the start of the current Intifada, the Israeli economy has posted satisfactory growth. The economy grew 4% in 2004 and will hopefully do as well in 2005, which means the worst of the economic crisis is now behind us.
The Israeli government’s performance in the social arena, however, has been less stellar. We have not been able to solve our social problems. Nearly all the developed countries are facing the same problem right now: how to  balance their economic capacity and their social needs. Israel managed to maintain this balance for many years, but it has been upset by the economic crisis. We are trying to jump start the Israeli economy by making budget cuts. This policy has produced results, but to the detriment of the most underprivileged social groups, who have also been hit hard by Israel’s growing insecurity and economic problems. The unemployment rate has climbed to a dangerous level, affecting nearly 10% of the working population, and a full 16% of our younger generation. And while all industrialized countries are facing this same problem, it is all the more troubling in Israel, since these young people have spent three years serving in the army. On a broader level, a country like Israel cannot allow such a large segment of the population – nearly 20% – to live on the edge of the poverty indefinitely. Having said that, I don’t think we will see any major changes before 2005, as our efforts have proved insufficient, despite the considerable means invested by the government and the very large contribution from Jews around the globe.
The disappointing results of our “reemployment policy” must also be underscored. Our goal was to spur inactive segments of the population to reenter the job market, by cutting both unemployment and child benefits. 80% of the people living near the poverty threshold in Israel belong to two very different communities: ultraorthodox Jews, or Arab minorities. We managed to create some 70,000 new jobs this year. But we need 80,000 to 90,000 more jobs in order to get these social groups back into the workforce. We are, however, starting to see a change, notably among young ultraorthodox Jews, which is extremely important. But the government’s social policy, alone, cannot solve the problem of unemployment. While it is essential for some Israelis, it is useless for people who do not want to work.
Finally, the Israeli economy’s most attractive assets are its ability to innovate and its strong infrastructures. The level of economic development in the State of Israel equals that of Europe. Our minimum wage is $850 a month, a level comparable to Western countries. This obviously means we are not as attractive as India or Poland, in terms of labor. But we invest roughly $1,000 per capita in research and development, a level unequaled anywhere else in the world. Our people’s ability to master new technologies is another big asset for foreign investors. Compared to other countries, the State of Israel may not offer great economic advantages, but it does have great research and development centers as well as the world’s best technicians. These assets are the keystone of Israel’s efforts to expand its ties with major multinationals looking to move into up-and-coming technologies and develop innovative approaches.

T.D.L.: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently called on Jews around the globe to immigrate to Israel, relaunching a long-standing government policy. Can you tell us why this was done? Was it spurred by the need for stronger economic development in Israel? Does your country have a long-term strategy for meeting the challenges raised by the rapid growth of the Palestinian population?

H.E.N.Z.: Having Jews living abroad immigrate to Israel is not an economic imperative for our country. Let me underscore the fact that none of world’s Jewish communities are currently in danger. In other words, none of the Jews moving to Israel right now have been forced to do so, as was the case during the wave of immigration from North Africa in the 1950s, or the wave from Ethiopia, or more recently from the former USSR. These immigrants are driven by personal desire, and have a completely different approach. In less than ten years, the State of Israel has taken in nearly one million immigrants from the former USSR. And while one-third of these new immigrants are retirees, this latest wave of immigration has helped boost the Israeli economy by creating new jobs. These immigrants have impressed us with their ability to carry out their military service and find their niche in their cities and labor market, while still safeguarding their culture. Every wave of immigration brings Israel something new, and breathes fresh breath into its economy. We must, in consequence, make full use of our society’s ability to integrate these new populations. We must also create  attractive conditions for new immigrants. If the State of Israel becomes a sufficiently attractive country, one that reinforces the feeling of belonging to the homeland of the Jewish people and offers real opportunities for economic development and social integration, then more and more Jews around the globe will feel the desire to build their future there. The economic crisis is not completely behind us yet. We have consequently eased our immigration requirements, allowing new immigrants to progressively integrate Israeli society at a slower pace.
In addition, it is obviously in our best interest, in the long run, to increase the Jewish population in our country. In order to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state in future years, we need to consolidate Israel’s centrality for Jews around the globe, along with all the other things that shape the State of Israel’s relations with the countries in which they live. The international Jewish community played a key role in creation of the State of Israel, even if it was an indirect one. The Jews living inside Israel could never have met the challenge of creating our nation all alone. Many non-Jews do not understand the State of Israel’s centrality for Jews living abroad. Jews in France, for instance, stand behind the State of Israel in the same manner that Arabs in France stand behind the Palestinians, which is perfectly normal in my eyes. We must, nonetheless, prevent this support from being transformed into acts of violence.
As far as our demographic problem is concerned, the solution is to stabilize the State of Israel’s permanent international borders. There are currently ten million people living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, broken down into 5.5 million Jews and 4.5 million Palestinians. 3.8 million of them live on disputed lands, including 1.2 million Israeli citizens. This shows, quite clearly, that the demographic problem lies outside our borders. This is another reason why it is so important for people to realize that the creation of a Palestinian state is vital, even if it rends the hearts of Jews who still believe in the “Great Israel.” Accepting the creation of a binational state – as various elements of the Israeli far left have proposed – would be a death sentence for the State of Israel. This idea would lead, within a single generation, to the disappearance of the State of Israel as a Jewish state and as the homeland of the Jewish people. By separating ourselves from some 3.5 million Palestinians, the recognition of the State of Israel’s permanent international borders will be the first step towards resolving our demographic problem. After a Palestinian state has been created, we will continue to guarantee the rights of the 1.2 million Arabs with Israeli nationality, as we have always done. Arab Israelis are represented at the national level by 12 parliamentary deputies, and at the local level by 85 elected mayors. I would also like to underscore the fact that the great majority of Arab Israelis are pacifists. We must also make a distinction within the Arab community between the Druzes, the more than 160,000 Christian Arabs, and some 800,000 Muslim Arabs who identify with the Palestinian people and have had a very rough time since the start of the Intifada. What’s more, each of these groups has a completely different approach to this conflict. And if you ask these people if they would like to become Palestinian citizens, they will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that they want to keep their Israeli nationality.
T.D.L.: The implementation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral pullout, which calls for the dismantling of all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, has been pushed up to early 2005. Now that the “Roadmap” has become a dead letter, what is the strategic goal behind this withdrawal? What will happen in the West Bank, where the plan calls for pulling out of just four settlements?

H.E.N.Z.: Looking at the way the Israeli government and the majority of the Israeli people came to the conclusion that Israel should give up the Gaza Strip is very enlightening. Four or five years ago, the Israeli people came to the realization that things simply could not go on like this. Two-thirds of Israelis realized they had to give up their illusions about the “Great Israel” and make wide concessions, starting with recognizing the need to divide up the territory and end the conflict through political means. But as they came to this conclusion, the new Intifada started up, making them realize they did not have a real partner to work with. This is the great paradox now facing Israeli society.
The Roadmap is a very intelligent, very well conceived, and very pragmatic document, in that it raises two fundamental issues: first, the problem of Palestinian terrorism, and second, the question of Israeli settlements. If we can resolve these issues, we will be able to restore confidence and begin pushing forward towards an agreement. We are convinced, however, that Palestinian authorities lack the will to truly combat terrorism. The resolutions laid out in the Roadmap have not been respected, as is clear for all to see. It is also true that the Israeli government hasn’t done enough to freeze the construction of illegal settlements. Our government has, all the same, made the fight against terrorism a top priority. We have redefined our strategic interests, in light of this. We haven’t been content to simply lock ourselves away behind our security fence and protect our settlements, waiting for a solution to present itself in a generation or two. Instead, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took the decision to pull back from the Gaza Strip. The biggest advantage of this initiative is the withdrawal of the Israeli Army from 40% of Palestinian territory. This will be done in Gaza, which is home to 1.4 million Palestinians, and in the northern part of the West Bank, where another 12,000 to 13,000 Palestinians live. Israel will withdraw all of its armed forces and settlements from these areas.
This plan could be implemented in three different fashions: either within the framework of an agreement with the Palestinians; or under an international accord; or as the result of a unilateral decision. At this point, I would have to say that we are wavering between the second and third options, since Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan is backed by the U.S. and Europe, though the latter’s support is conditional on Israel implementing its plan within the framework of the Roadmap. From this standpoint, Ariel Sharon’s greatest achievement has been convincing U.S. President George Bush and his administration of the necessity of this move, in order to build confidence and push forward to discuss the future of the West Bank. The great determination of the Israeli Prime Minister’s government to implement this plan offers our only chance for breaking the deadlock in the Middle East. Let me just add that the Israeli left has been promoting this plan for the past ten years, but has never been able to push it through. Now a conservative government is going to put it into action, with the support of the left. This plan is the first step in the implementation of a much broader plan that should bring this conflict to an end. 
Everyone must understand, however, that this stage will be very painful, since a good number of Israelis live in these territories. They were induced to move there by decisions taken by the Israeli government. They built their homes there, and set up schools. Thousands of children have already been born there. These territories are their entire lives. This concerns some 8,000 people, entire families who are wondering why this is happening to them. The plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip is going to rip Israeli society apart, but we understand that there is no future for Israelis in these territories. 
The Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip is also a true test of the Palestinians’ will and ability to govern this territory on their own, and to become a peaceful neighbor of the State of Israel. This is another key element in the strategy behind this plan. Our region is being given a chance to turn itself into a more prosperous zone. If the terrorist attacks continue after the pullout, what more excuses will they have? If that is the case, the Palestinians should just forget the next stage, because the majority of Israelis will support the government, the Israeli left included. This is another reason why we would like to get Jordan and Egypt involved in this project.
The same solution will not, however, be automatically  applied in the West Bank. It is already clear to us that this second stage will be far more difficult to implement. This makes the first stage all the more important, since it will introduce the principle of withdrawing Israeli settlements from disputed territories. Afterwards, we will be able to start discussing the permanent border. The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by the Israeli left, stipulate that the question of Israeli settlements will be addressed within the framework of a permanent agreement. Since that time, not one single Israeli colony or settlement has been moved. I remember submitting the plan for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip to Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Perez as early as 1995. And while I was responsible for these settlements, I personally found the situation indefensible. But Yitzak Rabin told me that these settlements were an asset that Israel could use in brokering a permanent agreement. It must thus be understood that the decision to withdraw Israeli settlements from the West Bank will come only once we have reached a permanent agreement that brings this conflict to an end.

T.D.L.: Why, in your opinion, was the Geneva Plan shelved?

H.E.N.Z.: The biggest problem with the Geneva plan was that it was completely out of touch with reality. It is admittedly a very interesting plan, which was put together in a very professional manner. In fact, if we do eventually come up with a solution to this conflict, its parameters will probably resemble the parameters of the Geneva Plan very closely. But the plan’s authors are in the minority in their respective countries or societies. They do not have the trust of their peoples, and cannot count on their support. The ideas themselves are not the problem. Until the people of Israel have grasped the importance of negotiating every last square centimeter of Jerusalem, we will be unable to deal with more important issues like the problem of terrorism. The most important aspects of any new peace plan are the timetable it lays out and the atmosphere it creates. For that very reason, the Geneva Plan is impossible to implement.

T.D.L.: The Israeli government’s decision to build a “security fence” to cut itself off from the West Bank has drawn widespread criticism from the international community, in particular because it oversteps the Green Line boundaries laid out in 1967. While Israeli calls this a “defensive measure,” aren’t you afraid this move will be seen as an attempt to prematurely fix the boundaries of a future Palestinian state?

H.E.N.Z.: You must understand one thing: reaching the conclusion that a separation wall was the only possible solution between us and the Palestinians – after 56 years of existence, including 37 years after the Six-Day War – was an admission of failure. But we also came to the conclusion that this was an absolutely necessary step, and as we have seen, one that has already produced positive results. This measure is the outgrowth of a good deal of soul-searching that began after the start of the latest Intifada, three or four years ago. The Israeli left has given up its illusions. It realized that the destructive elements in Palestinian society had no interest whatsoever in seeing this conflict end.
Realizing we needed to find a more effective way to fight terrorism, Israelis have come together in support of the security fence, with the exception of the far right and the far left. International public opinion must also understand that before he could build this fence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had to first secure the support of the Parliament and the Israeli government. If he had proposed building the fence along the Green Line, the proposal would never have garnered majority support. A choice had to be made: either we abandoned the security fence, or reached a compromise between the far right, the traditional right, and the other parties in the coalition government. From our  standpoint, building the fence along the Green Line was simply not an option, as it would have led to the de facto creation of a border the Israeli right would never accept. The only thing that can change the location of the fence are rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court. Once they have been implemented, the fence will incorporate only 5 to 7% of the territory that was not already part of Israel before the Six-Day War. At that point, all of the condemnation voiced before the International Court of Justice will be groundless. Finally, the entire southern section of the security fence, which stretches from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, will roughly follow the Green Line, with slight deviations tied to topographic issues and construction costs.
The boundaries of Jerusalem remain the key problem. Running the fence through the center of the Israeli and Palestinian cities clearly raises tremendous problems. Personally, I can understand the Palestinian reaction, but we do not have any other choice. We need this fence, as the attacks in Bersheva have proved. There has not been one single attack along the 220 kilometer long security fence in northern Israel. It has made life easier for Palestinians as well. Their cities are no longer sealed off, there are less roadblocks, and it is now easier for people to move around in this zone, especially for Palestinians who work in Israel.

T.D.L.: In view of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s strategy to isolate the President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, how does Israel plan to relaunch the peace talks? Doesn’t pushing Arafat aside automatically raise the question of who will succeed him? What are your thoughts on the political crisis within the Palestinian Authority (PA) ? Do you think the PA has the resources to wipe out the influence of terrorist organizations in Palestinian society?
Palestinian authorities are the only ones who can wipe out the roots of terrorism in Palestinian society. They have already proven their ability to fight this plague, in that they have had much greater success in this arena than the Israeli Army. But the Palestinian people and their political leaders must first realize that this is necessary, before they decide to move in this direction. In Jericho, for instance, there are no Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians decided to wipe out all the city’s terrorist elements. Tourism has since come bouncing back in this region. In like manner, I can assure you that the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip is perfectly able to handle the situation there and fulfill its duties.
It has been extremely encouraging to see a growing number of Palestinians realize that the Palestinian Authority, first, can not or will not meet its responsibilities, and second, is crippled by corruption. Israelis are no longer the only ones criticizing the Palestinian Authority. For the past five or six years, we have been questioning the use of the nearly 6 million dollars loaned by donor countries to foster the economic development of a region they governed from 1994 to 2000. It is easy to always blame the Israelis, but we see no visible improvement in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip when it comes to creating schools, infrastructures, or new jobs. We have long been aware of this fact, as has the United States. It is time for Europe and the Palestinians to open up their eyes as well. I think I can say that Yasser Arafat is not a corrupt man, but he has surrounded himself with a corrupt regime. The Palestinian Authority has an annual budget of one billion dollars. 10% of these funds – some $100 million – are managed directly by Yasser Arafat and his underlings, without any outside control. This situation is unacceptable, and would be judged as such in both Israel and France. From this standpoint, we have seen another major change within the Palestine Authority over the past year, with the nomination of Salam Fayyad as Minister of Finance.
Furthermore, we are convinced that Yasser Arafat has played a very destructive role in the efforts to resolve this conflict. The United States shares this belief, along with a growing number of European countries. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs is quite right when he complains that France will soon be the only country in Europe backing Arafat. Yasser Arafat’s role as the political leader of the Palestinian Authority is the biggest problem facing us today. There is absolutely no doubt that he remains the symbol of the Palestinian people. He empowered them to reassert their existence; no one can ever take away what he has done for his people. As a political leader, however, he is unable to break through the psychological barriers to peace, which would enable us to bring this conflict to an end.
There is, all the same, a new generation of Palestinian political leaders who haven’t made the same promises and don’t use the same language. Men like Abu Mazen and Abu Ala are far more pragmatic leaders. If they had been able to act on their convictions, I think we would be facing a entirely different situation today. They understand that terrorism is disastrous, for the Palestinian people first and foremost, as they openly admit. But they can’t do anything about it, not because the PA lacks the means, but because those means haven’t been put at their disposal. The Gaza Strip alone has some 27,000 armed forces (for 1.2 million inhabitants) who are paid a monthly salary of $200 to secure the territory. Proportionally speaking, Gaza has four times more peace officers than the French police force. Some of them have even joined Islamist movements and carried out attacks, which is totally unacceptable. When Mohamed Dahlan decided to fulfill his duties as the Minister of Security, and fight the terrorist forces in the Gaza Strip, Yasser Arafat prevented him from acting. This new generation of Palestinian leaders understands they will never be able to achieve their dream of recovering the territories that were taken from them, in the same way we must tell ultraorthodox Jews and the far right that their dream of returning to the roots of Judaism is no longer possible. In fact, Yitzak Rabin told the Israeli people that we would have to visit Hebron as tourists. Yasser Arafat, for his part, must face up to his responsibilities. He must understand that the policy he has advocated in recent years has brought pain and suffering to his people. In any case, Yasser Arafat is no longer a valid partner for the State of Israel, not only in the eyes of Ariel Sharon, but in the eyes of the great majority of the Israeli people.

T.D.L.: At its May 2004 summit in Tunis, the Arab League adopted an unprecedented resolution calling for the enactment of liberal reforms in Arab countries. Could this open up new prospects for wider dialogue between Israel and the Arab world? During his recent visit to Cairo, Foreign Affairs Minister Silvan Shalom spoke of a “new beginning” for Israeli-Egyptian relations. Will Israel  lay greater weight on its diplomatic ties with Egypt in the future? Do you think the initiative for creating a partnership with the broader Middle East, launched at the G-8 Sea Island Summit, is truly feasible? 

H.E.N.Z.: I would like to start by clarifying one thing: the “Arab world” does not exist as an international political identity, the way that the United States and Europe exist. There are, on the other hand, Arab countries. The widely conflicting interests that divide Arab countries are proof that organizations like the Arab League are totally artificial. I am not in a position to say if this state of affairs is positive, or negative. Every one of these countries has assessed its own interests and decided how it will be governed. There is no automatic common interest between Tunisia and Egypt, for instance, or between Kuwait and Iraq. The only real point of agreement between Arab countries may well be their opposition to Israel. And that is not even entirely true, because their positions on Israel differ. Certain countries, such as Libya, have even changed their stance over the past three years. They do, of course, all condemn the Israeli occupation, but they have all proposed different solutions.
The plan for democratizing Arab countries put forward by the United States, with backing from Europe, could prove quite interesting in the long run. In the short run, however, this plan presents several dangers. If we look at Arab countries that were democratized overnight, the results have been disastrous, in every case. As we see in Morocco, Islamist movements are now the only well-organized political force in Arab societies, outside of government forces. In Algeria, France stepped in to annul the 1991 elections. If Egypt was a fully democratic country right now, the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power. If the free and democratic world is ready to face these developments, then let’s go ahead and take the risk. But we are fully aware that an entire generation will have to be sacrificed, before true democracy can take root in these countries. We are facing a political choice here. Just look at the situation in Iraq right now. Personally, I am closer to France than the U.S. on this issue, as it at least favors moving forward step by step, taking account of the unique situation in each country. This approach stands far greater chances of success. What’s more, if we tie resolving the Mideast crisis to the democratization of Arab countries, we could be facing a very long and drawn-out process. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have that much time. And let me emphasize this last point: the rise of Islamist extremism is far more troubling than European leaders would have us believe.

T.D.L.: The situation in Iraq remains highly unstable, even after U.S. forces turned over sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 28th of this year. What are your thoughts on the current situation in this country?

H.E.N.Z.: In my opinion, we will have to let more time go by, before we can assess the results of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The United States has, clearly, made mistakes. The biggest mistake was not waiting to put together an international consensus and convince the people in free and democratic countries that this action was justified. The failure to do so has been a disaster for the U.S., which has lost a good deal of standing in the international community. That said, I think the final outcome of this military intervention may be far more positive than I had initially feared. And while the situation is still very touchy, it can always calm back down, though this may happen very slowly. All the same, this is not a model for building democracy I would try to implement in other Arab countries, since it clearly does not work.

T.D.L.: Shortly before last July’s visit to Israel by the Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohammed El Baradei, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed that Israel would continue its policy of “strategic ambiguity” over its nuclear weapons program. Given the new situation in the region, and the fact that Iran is apparently pushing forward with its nuclear weapons program, how will Israel handle the Iran question? Does Iran constitute a serious threat? Could we see a rekindling of the arms race in the Middle East?

H.E.N.Z.: I believe that the Iranian threat is very real, and that it should be taken very seriously. And the State of Israel is not the only one concerned. The way I see it, the Iranian people and their leaders have taken a strategic decision, in the belief that acquiring nuclear weapons is the only way for Iran to assert itself as a key player on the regional and international stages. Everything else is just tactical posturing and manipulation. In other words, we haven’t seen any headway over the past year, despite efforts by France, Germany and Britain to convince Iran that developing weapons of mass destruction, against the advice of the international community, is not in its best interest. I think the Europeans have done an excellent job in this arena, taking a necessary first step. But international pressure does not appear to have had much impact on the Iranians, whose strategy remains unchanged. We must ask ourselves what kind of role Iran will play in this region in the future: will it be a stabilizing force, or just the opposite? As you know, the Shah’s regime fell in one and a half months. Who knows what will happen? There is much talk of reform and change in Iran. The Iranian people are a great nation. They have tremendous and unique capabilities in every sphere, which cannot be ignored. Bolstered by this, Iran could use its international standing to stabilize the region; or it could instead turn it into a living hell. If the international community decides that Iran is indeed a rogue state, then we must do our utmost to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if it decides Iran is a responsible country, then it must take an entirely different approach. I nonetheless believe that Iran’s current behavior is dangerous, if not totally irresponsible. As for the State of Israel, I don’t think there is much we can do. We support European countries’ ongoing efforts, working through diplomatic channels, to prevent Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction. We hope they succeed.

T.D.L.: In light of the strong Israel-EU economic partnership, during his tenure as European Union President Silvio Berlusconi rekindled the idea of inviting your country to join European structures. Where do you see relations between Israel and the EU heading in the future?

H.E.N.Z.: Our country has not given serious thought to the possibility of having the State of Israel join the European Union. The State of Israel and the EU have forged very close ties in several areas, such as the political and economic arenas as well as research and development. For this reason, Israel considers itself part of a second circle of countries linked to the EU. I am not sure, however, that becoming a full-fledged member would serve the State of Israel’s best interests. We enjoy the benefits of not completely belonging to the EU, which allows us to strengthen our ties with other powers around the globe, such as the United States, India, and China. We are very deeply attached to our freedom of action.
Furthermore, I am not really sure it is in Europe’s interest to bring in Israel right now, as I don’t think this would be possible without allowing other countries to join first. Israelis and Europeans are indeed united by shared democratic values, but I don’t think this option should be pursued at this time. For the time being, the State of Israel is satisfied with its relations with the European Union. This is true in every sphere of cooperation, apart from the EU’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That said, if the EU did ask the State of Israel to join its structures, I am sure it would spark a highly interesting debate in Israel.

T.D.L.: There has been a strong drive over the past two years to revitalize Franco-Israeli ties. President Moshe Katsav’s state visit to Paris, last February, was the first time an Israeli president had visited France in over fifteen years. Has the creation of the Franco-Israeli High-Level Group led to greater mutual understanding between the two countries? Does the Francophonie have a role to play in this process, working through projects like the reopening of the French Institute in Tel Aviv?

H.E.N.Z.: Just over two years ago, a strategic decision was taken in both France and Israel to make a distinction between issues concerning our bilateral ties, and issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At first, I found this approach rather naive; I didn’t think it would work. But today, I can readily say that just the opposite was true. Despite deep-reaching differences, which were debated once again during the latest meeting between  Michel Barnier and Sylvan Shalom, the two governments have decided to pursue a free and extremely open dialogue. We have removed all political barriers to developing close ties in a wide variety of areas, even in the particularly sensitive economic and scientific arenas.
But as far as French and Israeli public opinion are concerned, I do sense a great deal of disappointment in both societies. The generation of French who lived through the creation of our nation-state saw Israel as a country founded on ideals, a country of pioneers and survivors. From the 1950s until the Six-Day War,  the State of Israel was idealized in France. French society identified very closely with our country. But since 1967, with the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories,  French disappointment with Israel has steadily grown. We have not been able to convince the French that what is happening right now in Israel is part of our struggle to guarantee our existence and independence. What’s more, Israel’s image has been completely warped in recent years. The ideological and idealistic Israel has been forgotten, with all talk focusing instead on its army. The State of Israel is far more than its conflict with the Palestinians. Israelis, too, are feeling disappointed, since France gave us great encouragement and support during the most difficult phases in the creation of our state. And yet today, France is considered the most anti-Israeli country in all Europe. The rise of anti-Semitism in France has reached alarming proportions, which has further distorted its image in the eyes of Israelis. That doesn’t mean there are no more Israelis who love France, or chose Paris as their favorite vacation destination. Let me say that France has shown enormous determination in fighting anti-Semitism; more, in fact, than any other European country. France is the only country that has changed its laws and taken firm political stances, by creating an interministerial commission addressing this problem. Despite these initiatives, the new awareness in France is seen in a very different light in Israel, which points to a deep underlying uneasiness. 
This emotional gap, this lack of confidence, will be very difficult to overcome. Neither French nor Israeli public opinion have been swayed by our efforts to improve bilateral relations by setting aside France’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli people are not interested in scientific projects. They are interested in the images they see in the media, and the big decisions made by our governments. As the Israeli Ambassador, I can bear witness to a clear improvement in Franco-Israeli relations, and the establishment of a real dialogue with French institutions. Unfortunately, I must also say that the Israeli and French people continue to feel very distant from each other. For my own part, I am doing my utmost to try and improve this aspect of our relations.
The biggest impact of the High-Level Group has been the creation of an atmosphere that encourages all the elements in the French state – I’m not talking about the private sector here – to look for new cooperation opportunities with Israel. The Group has already organized exchanges between intellectuals. A High-Level Scientific Council has also been launched under the supervision of the French Research Ministry. As far as cultural cooperation projects are concerned, we should mention the creation of an Israeli Cultural Center in Paris, and new sister city projects involving some 15 cities, in addition to the 56 Israeli and French cities that already have sister city programs. Our countries have also set up pairing projects between our universities, hospitals, and scientific institutions.
Finally, France’s highest officials have said they will help the State of Israel become a member of the International Organization of the Francophonie (IOF) as soon as possible. Given that Israel finds itself in what I would call a very delicate situation, it will not officially present its candidacy until it is certain of being accepted. That must be absolutely clear. I don’t think this requirement has been met, knowing that at least one of the IOF’s 86 member countries will exercise its veto power. For this reason, we are continuing to discuss this matter with French authorities. We do not think it is normal that a country like Israel – where 20% of the population is of French descent – is still not an IOF member. We have, nonetheless, begun participating in various IOF activities, in the professional and academic spheres as well as various other arenas.

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