Noam and Aviva Shalit accompanied their son Gilad to the Elysee Palace on Wednesday to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, and thank the French President personally for his “commitment” to obtaining Gilad’s release.
Noam, who had been in frequent contact with Sarkozy during Gilad’s long years in captivity, said the family was “very moved” by the meeting, during which Gilad also spoke on the phone to French first lady Carla Bruni and thanked her.
Later Wednesday, Noam and Aviva were seated next to the President at the annual gala dinner of the CRIF, the umbrella Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, where hundreds of distinguished members of the community mingled with the country's top politicians. The Shalits, who had been invited as the evening's guests of honor, were not joined by their son, because, as Noam explained, it is difficult for Gilad to be in big crowds, and his integration back into "normal" life is a "slow process."
Noam, who received a standing ovation when he and Sarkozy went up to the podium, addressed the guests in French, thanking them all, as well as all "all the other French -the well known ones and the anonymous ones - who kept Gilad's spirit alive and were with us on this journey." He also thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his courage in going ahead with the deal and bringing Gilad home.
"We are very happy to be among you under these circumstances… at a time when we have our son Gilad back with us after years of suffering. Today, the president received us and it was a great honor for us. We always knew you, the French, and you Mr. President would never tire until our son returned to us," Shalit said.
Sarkozy, speaking after Shalit, saluted both the Shalit family and Netanyahu for their courage and stressed that there was never a question of the French standing up for Gilad and demanding his safe return.
"I always said that Gilad was a French national. Just like in the case of Ingrid Betancourt," said the President, referring to the Colombian-French politician kidnapped and held in captivity by the FARC. "It is France's job to stand by every one of its citizens. It is our mission to say: that persecuted person, who is being humiliated and tortured, that is our child."
A different Israeli family meanwhile, found itself shut out of the CRIF dinner.
The father of Lee Zeitouni, a victim of a hit-and-run by French nationals, Izik Zeitouni, and her fiancé, Roy Peled, who arrived in Paris earlier this week, had expressed the wish to be present at the dinner in order to call for justice. "Our goal is to ask those who caused the death of Lee and the community where they live to take responsibility for this act," the father, speaking in French, said at a press conference Monday.
But Richard Prasquier, President of CRIF, explained that the organization doesn’t want "the annual dinner to turn into a media event around this tragedy."
"First we did not know that the parents of Lee Zeitouni were in Paris. Then it's through a French television station that we learned they were invited to the CRIF dinner although we had not issued such an invitation because we were not aware they were here.”
Prasquier further explained that changing the laws of extradition was not part of the CRIF's mandate "no matter how painful the issue at hand."
The French press reported that Prasquier wrote a harsh letter to Zeitouni telling him that while he was more than willing to spend time with the family, he would not allow them into the dinner.
"It is my obligation to prevent you from entering. If you decide to show up without being invited then I assure you that you shall bear the responsibility toward France, the French justice system, the French Jewish community and Israel and the memory of your precious Lee,” he reportedly wrote.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe made it clear that while France was both pained by Lee’s death, willing to cooperate with Israel on this case and would act with determination to bring the two men to justice – that there was no way the French law would allow the two men to be extradited to Israel.
Sarkozy himself reiterated this message at the CRIF dinner, saying that "France can never extradite its nationals and we cannot and will not make exceptions, never." But, he then added, "We assure you that we will not allow this crime to go unpunished."
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