Will France's new president Francois Hollande be good for Israel?
While one Foreign Ministry official says 'everything changes, yet everything stays the same,' Jerusalem is wondering whether Netanyahu will get along with the Elysee Palace's new residents.
Were it up to the French citizens who went to vote on Sunday at the various polling stations scattered across Israel, Nicolas Sarkozy could have remained France's president for another 50 years. Of those voters, 92 percent gave their ballot to the established president. In Netanya, Sarkozy reached 97 percent, a number comparable to those of former Syrian President Hafez Assad, the father of the country's current leader, and the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The French embassy, which prepared for a large wave of voters – almost 10,000 – scattered polling stations across the country: from Eilat in the south, to Afula and Haifa in the north. Some of the polling stations were even met with busloads of voters, who arrived in organized groups to give their vote to Sarkozy.
But despite the support in Israel for the outgoing president, voters in France were of a different opinion. They sent Sarkozy home, sending Francois Hollande into office at Elysee Palace.
Jerusalem has been intently following the French elections for some time now. Sarkozy, who walked into presidency as a good friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and left frustrated and embittered by the Israeli premier, is considered a known and loved European leader in Israel.
Numerous Israeli politicians and the general public consider Sarkozy a good friend of Israel, despite his criticism of settlements and of Netanyahu. When Sarkozy was caught calling the Israeli prime minister a "liar" in the famous microphone incident with U.S. President Barak Obama, he did not come under fire by the Israeli media that is close to Netanyahu and was not branded "anti-Israel" or "anti-Semitic". The average Israeli did not see Sarkozy's words against Netanyahu as evidence of hostility toward Israel, rather perhaps an expression of a friend who feels comfortable enough to openly speak his mind.
The incoming French president, Francois Hollande, is not only a mystery to Israel's public, but also to its politicians. Hollande has never visited Israel and, in general, never meddled with foreign affairs during his political career. Throughout his presidential campaign, Hollande never criticized Israel and overall presented a balanced stance, while his goal was to avoid upsetting anyone.
"I intend on visiting Israel soon after I win the elections," said Hollande in an interview with a French Jewish news website about a week ago. He promised to fight an all out war against anti-Semitism in France, made it clear that he opposed any form of boycotting Israel, avoided repetitive remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and focused on the Iranian issue instead. "We must be intransigent when it comes to Iran, whose nuclear program is a danger to Israel and world peace," he said.
About two months ago, Hollande sent a special envoy on his behalf, former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who met Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials and also visited Ramallah, where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The main goal of Fabius's visit was to ensure both Israel and the Palestinians that they had no reason to worry.
Fabius, who is considered the leading candidate for the role of foreign minister in Hollande's government, made it clear to Netanyahu that that he would continue Sarkozy's aggressive line against Iran in the European Union.
When it came to the Palestinians, Fabius voiced identical criticism to that heard during Sarkozy't time - opposing settlement construction and calling upon Israel to advance the peace process.
It will also be interesting to see whether Netanyahu, who prompted his friend, outgoing French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, so much disappointment, will manage to form a close and intimate relationship with the new residents of Elysee Palace.
On Monday morning, at the opening government meeting, a few hours after the results of the French elections became clear, Netanyahu congratulated Hollande for his win. "The relationship between Israel and France has always been friendly, and they will stay that way," he said. "I am looking forward to meeting Hollande in order to continue this important relationship, which is also important on a bilateral level and also on an international level."
Hollande will need to quickly dive into foreign affairs and put his team together accordingly. A few days after he is sworn in as president, Hollande will arrive at a summit in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a short time later will head to Washington for a meeting at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama. After Washington, the G8 summit will await him in Chicago. At the center of each of those events will be the Iranian issue.
A source at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem said that Hollande holds an overall friendly approach to Israel, but the main question now is who he will appoint to the role of foreign minister, and who will be chosen to make up the political team of his bureau.
One of the candidates for the post of National Security Advisor is Jacques Audibert, who serves today as French Political Director of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, and as a French representative in the Iranian negotiations. Audibert is considered pro-Israel and some of his relatives even live in Israel.
In addition to Laurent Fabius are two candidates for Foreign Minister: Pierre Moskovici, who stood at the head of Hollande's election headquarters, and Hubert Védrine, who served as Foreign Minister in the past. While Fabius and Moskovici are considered to hold positions on the center-left, and are known for supporting Israel and taking a balanced position on the Palestinian issue, Védrine is seen as anti-Israel, among other things because of remarks made throughout the second intifada.
Nonetheless, Jerusalem does not currently expect a dramatic change in French policies toward Iran or the Palestinian issue. If any change does come, it will be in the style and personality of the French president, and not in his essence. "It will be harder to be even more against the settlements and for a Palestinian state than Sarkozy was," said a Foreign Ministry official. "And like the French saying goes, everything changes, yet everything remains the same."