When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Paris at the end of June 2009, he was sure he was going to be meeting a friend.
Less than three months earlier the new government of Israel he headed had been sworn in, and 10 days earlier he had delivered the address that U.S. President Barack Obama expected of him − the so-called “Bar-Ilan speech.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Netanyahu considered a personal friend, was presumed to be one of the incoming prime minister’s allies in the European arena.
Netanyahu and Sarkozy became acquainted thanks to Meir Habib, a leader of the Jewish community in France. Since 2003 they had met several times, in Israel and in France; they had even shared a cozy dinner with their wives when Sarkozy − still a cabinet minister − visited Israel (with his wife at the time, Cecilia).
A detailed cable about their meeting, written on June 29, 2009 by Kathleen Allegrone, the political attache at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, depicts Sarkozy as a person who is sometimes tied down to an official position that he cannot change as president, even though he might want to do so personally.
The cable also indicates that even though he is supposedly a friend to Netanyahu, Sarkozy − the European leader upon whom the Israeli premier should be able to rely more than any other − had reservations about him and preferred not to be left alone with him.
The report on the meeting is based on the briefing provided to the Americans by Boris Boillon, at the time Sarkozy’s adviser on Middle East affairs and one of the president’s veteran associates. Boillon subsequently left the Elysee Palace for a posting as his country’s ambassador in Iraq, where he served from 2009 to 2011.
Recently Sarkozy hastily appointed him ambassador to Tunisia in order to restore some of France’s diplomatic honor after it failed to predict the revolution there.
According to the American report, during the preparations for the meeting with the prime minister, Sarkozy refused to agree to Netanyahu’s request that they confer one-on-one. “After a tete-a-tete, each side says what it wants” about the things said in the meeting, explains the memo. In fact, the meeting was held in the presence of advisers from both sides.
During the meeting Sarkozy, “while conveying his feelings of ‘personal friendship’ to ... nonetheless deliberately ignored two direct appeals by Netanyahu to break off for a one-on-one exchange.”
According to a French Foreign Ministry source who also briefed the U.S. officials, it was Sarkozy who “drove the meeting from start to finish,” and he who talked most of the time, not allowing Netanyahu “to set traps” for him.
For his part, according to the French reports, Sarkozy was assertive on the issue of the Jewish settlements in the territories. He demanded that Netanyahu act on the matter of dismantling roadblocks in the West Bank − and in general spoke against the settlement project, telling the Israeli, “You have nothing to gain from them,” and “They provide no security.”
At these moments Netanyahu looked “offended,” say the French, though he did not respond. Daniel Levy, an official of the Israeli Embassy in Paris who also briefed the Americans, confined himself to reporting that there was “no real discussion” between the two leaders.
There was, however, discussion of the Bar-Ilan speech, which Netanyahu had delivered on June 14. According to the French account, it was Sarkozy who first brought up the subject, telling Netanyahu that the Palestinians “must have a state of their own.”
When Netanyahu pulled out the speech, Sarkozy said it was “good but insufficient” and refused to show enthusiasm over the prime minister’s explicit use of the words “Palestinian state.” The French president believes Israel has no time to waste, said the report: “Time is against us.” In general, he said, “The longer you wait, the more support you will lose.”
At the meeting, Netanyahu raised the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. According to the American document, the French president’s adviser admitted that during the meeting Sarkozy agreed, in principle, to support the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, but explained that in public, Sarkozy will go no further than to mention “two states for two peoples.”
The reason for this? Sarkozy was “worried that any mention of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel will ‘insult’ the Palestinians ..., who could interpret a statement as ‘a sign that we don’t support the right of return.’”
The French adviser concluded that Sarkozy “believes in a Jewish nation state for the Jewish people ... he believes that’s why Israel was created.” Thus Sarkozy “privately recognizes Israel as a Jewish state” − but is not prepared to say these things “publicly,” not even for the sake of his friend Netanyahu.
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