Cautious French Feelers

One needs to listen to the French-Israeli dialogue with a very sensitive ear in order to understand that it is not only the content that determines the mutual suspicion.

PARIS - A few days before French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier boarded his plane to Ben-Gurion International Airport, his aides managed to drop a few heavy hints concerning France's good intentions vis-a-vis Israel. In the unprecedented get-together (the French government had never before initiated a meeting between the French media and those of any other other country), at which reporters, editors and columnists from Israel faced colleagues from France's leading media outlets, representatives from the Quai d'Orsay played an active role.

Barnier himself showed up and gave an address. It was plain to see that he and his aides were making an earnest effort to thaw the ice with those who appeared for the moment to be representatives of the angry and offended Israeli public.

The French can't quite understand the misgivings that most Israelis, officials and others, feel toward France and its government. Barnier reiterated France's commitment, like all of Europe's, to Israel's well-being and security. And then he immediately hastened to add that the central condition for peace and security was, of course, the establishment of a Palestinian state. So far, so good. This was reasonable. But Israelis begin to shift uneasily in their seats when the French insist on mentioning that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is the partner who cannot be bypassed, that he is the elected leader of the Palestinian people.

"But most of the politicians, as well as the citizens, have long since been convinced that there really is no one to talk to on the other side," they say to the French.

"So what will you do in the meantime?" the French ask. "Build a fence and fight?"

"You don't understand us - our pain and our fear," bemoan the Israelis.

"Of course we understand," the French reply. "But it's not enough merely to sympathize with your plight, right? We have a foreign policy to conduct."

One needs to listen to the French-Israeli dialogue with a very sensitive ear in order to understand that it is not only the content that determines the mutual suspicion. Even if one forgoes, for the purpose of the debate, a detailed mention of the "charged" history that has woven the complex tapestry of relations between the two countries, and even if one tries to distinguish - very artificially, of course - between the problems of the State of Israel and those of the Jewish community in France, it is still difficult to pinpoint the missing valve that will release the surplus of emotions that have built up between the sides.

The Israelis, argued the small group - that doesn't of course represent Israeli society in its entirety, but certainly knows and can reflect the way the winds blow - don't believe a word the French the say.

"But why not?" the French take offense.

And here is where the answers vary: Some don't forgive the betrayal in 1967; others say the French media demonize Israel; and almost all feel that France's loyalty lies first and foremost with the Arab states. Some also spoke of a link between the rise in the strength of Islamic fundamentalism in France and the country's sharp anti-Israel stance.

The last argument makes the French jump out of their skin. In general, as far as they are concerned, anything connected to what they see as France's internal affairs is playing with dynamite.

In response to a question from Haaretz about the possible link between the Quai d'Orsay's latest efforts to warm up to Israel and the pressure on the government in Paris from France's Jewish community, Barnier categorically stated that France is not a communitarian country, and that in the eyes of the republic, France's Jewish citizens were equal to all its others.

And thus the foreign minister put an end to the discussion on the Jews and anti-Semitism in the context of the bilateral relations with Israel.

It is doubtful whether by the end of Barnier's visit - as successful, one hopes, as it may be - the Israeli media will have received an answer to the question of why France has taken pains in recent months to improve relations between the two countries. The supposition that France seeks to play a greater role in Europe in general, and in European involvement in the Middle East as well, doesn't suffice. The Jewish argument isn't even enough either.

Whatever the case may be, Barnier will have another chance, today or tomorrow, to make another small correction, which will perhaps release a little of the tension between the two countries. He'll be able to do so if, to his dry text about commitment to peace and security, he simply adds a warm and friendly sentence about France being ready to enthuse about every tiny step the Israelis take - every minute disengagement, minimalist withdrawal, tiny concession.

Perhaps they don't understand that the citizens of Israel are sick and tired of being hated, that they would take very big steps - if only they were rewarded with approval and love.