One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most prominent supporters in France has personally intervened on behalf of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, whose request to meet the Israeli leader during his visit to the country this week was repeatedly turned down, Haaretz has learned.
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Businessman and Jewish leader Meyer Habib acceded to a request by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make use of his close personal ties to Netanyahu and arrange a meeting between the two statesmen, after previous requests had been refused. French sources said that Fabius threatened to cancel his Middle East trip unless he could meet with Netanyahu, who is also the acting foreign minister.
The two were scheduled to meet in September, but Fabius decided to move up his visit in light of the escalation in the Syrian conflict. The meeting could not be rescheduled initially, because Netanyahu was supposed to be on vacation.
“As he does every year, the prime minister clears several days in August to rest,” a PMO spokesperson told Haaretz last week. “The meeting with the French foreign minister was originally scheduled for September, and the request to move it up to August could not be granted within the planned timetable.”
The French Ambassador to Israel Christophe Bigot received a similar answer when he contacted National Security Council director Yaakov Amidror.
But then Habib was asked to weigh in. “The French ambassador telephoned me as part of my position as a member of the French parliament, and asked me to help because of my close acquaintance with Netanyahu,” the former Likud activist and newly elected MP told Haaretz on Sunday. “I spoke with Netanyahu by telephone and told him it was important that he set aside time to meet with Fabius and explain Israel’s situation to him.
“France must understand that Israel is surrounded by Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, and not by Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Belgium,” Habib added. “So it was important that the meeting take place. I did it as a French citizen who wants to strengthen relations with Israel. Netanyahu was the one who decided to have the meeting, and I’m glad he did.”
Habib, the vice president of CRIF (the umbrella Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions in France), was Netanyahu’s unofficial representative in Paris and helped organize several meetings for him with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy when Netanyahu was opposition leader. Habib spent the day of the 2009 Knesset elections in Netanyahu’s company, and when the coalition was being formed he was the one who cooked up the deal to appoint top Likud politician and Netanyahu rival Silvan Shalom as vice prime minister and regional development minister.
Several weeks ago, Habib was elected to the French parliament as the represenative of French citizens living in the eastern Mediterranean, many of them in Israel. During his election campaign, Netanyahu supported him publicly and was even endorsed him in an election video.
In 2011, Channel 10 revealed that Habib had bought Netanyahu and his wife airline tickets to vacations in France when Netanyahu was not in public office. Habib said then that the help he provided had been technical and that the Netanyahus reimbursed him.
Officials in the prime minister’s bureau denied that Habib’s involvement had any effect on Netanyahu’s decision to meet with Fabius. “It’s true that the prime minister was supposed to be on vacation, but because no cabinet meeting has taken place over the past two weeks, Netanyahu decided to have a regular working day today that included a cabinet meeting, a meeting with the visiting French foreign minister and other meetings,” a spokesperson said on Sunday.