A French Kiss

Chirac wants to bring the warming relations out of the closet and show everyone how much closer Israel and France are at seeing eye-to-eye on Middle East issues.

When Jacques Chirac showers us with love and praise, what are his intentions? The interview the French president gave Haaretz on the eve of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Paris included expressions of exceptional warmth. Observers and informed sources offer several interpretations for what is hiding behind Chirac's "admiration" for his "great friend" - Israel:

l Bilateral relations and the peace process. In 2002 Chirac's France decided to sever the dependence of bilateral relations on progress in the peace process. Since then - as Sharon's visit and Chirac's words prove - the practical development in these relations reflect a significant warming, the likes of which have not been seen since the Israeli-French "honeymoon" ended in 1967: there is growing cooperation on the political, economic, cultural and civilian business levels and even on the security and intelligence levels.

This cooperation became even closer following the developments in the peace process and with them the desire to hug the "disengaging" Sharon, for the sake of the success of the withdrawal from Gaza and so that this will not be the last withdrawal.

l Anti-Semitism. Chirac, the first French president to recognize his country's responsibility for the Vichy regime's crimes, has decided to root out the anti-Semitic scourge. The president's actions, say Israeli diplomats, go beyond those of all his colleagues in the European Union. The French Interior Ministry's report, published on Monday, provides proof of his determination: In the first half of 2005 there was a 48-percent decline in the number of anti-Semitic incidents (and a 67-percent drop in violent anti-Semitic incidents) compared to the parallel period last year.

l Terror. "Nothing can justify terror," declared Chirac in the interview. The French president refuses to view Palestinian terror as the legitimate activity of a freedom movement. Analysts say that Chirac stiffened his position following the attacks in London. "Europe is waking up," said one Israeli source.

l Hamas. While British diplomats met recently with Hamas representatives, Chirac stated that "Hamas is a terrorist organization that cannot be an interlocutor in the international community." Some say this unequivocal statement surprised even the Quai d'Oorsay

l The Middle East. The distinct warning voiced by Chirac concerning Iran's nuclear program and the possibility of international sanctions against Iran surprised Jerusalem and sent shock waves to Tehran. The question of the influence of Iran's president-elect, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a mystery to the French, who can no longer hang their hopes on the moderate image of Mohammed Khatami. Chirac's warning reflects deep French concern regarding the changes in the Iranian leadership.

France also played a major role in the latest developments in Lebanon: When Chirac says, "Syria must develop and take the changed environment into consideration," he is demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad institute democracy, reforms, openness and a full withdrawal from Lebanon that will allow the Lebanese to run there own country with total independence.

Sharon's visit, it has been decided, will be "a visit of agreements," although this conceals disagreements, some of them fundamental:

l The terrorist pretext. Even if "nothing can justify terror," Chirac, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hints that the Middle East conflict is one of the factors that nurture terror. The French believe that on the day Israeli-Palestinian peace is established, one of the major pretexts for the terrorists will disappear.

l Hezbollah. Chirac demands the disarming of this organization, but refuses to include it in the European Union's list of terrorist organizations. He views the politicization of Hezbollah as a solution and feels that any other move will undermine the stability of the Lebanese government.

l Hamas' legitimacy. In private conversations it can be deduced from the French that Chirac's unwavering position will not last for long. Hamas' establishment in the territories - and most certainly its victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections - will start it along Hezbollah's current path.

The French stress, time and again, that "Israel's existence and legitimacy are indispensable" to them. While there is no doubt that they are aiming for excellent relations, it is still clear that the separation between improved relations and the progress of the peace process is artificial. The fact is a return to "the golden age," like the period before 1967, is not an option for them. Not now. For that the peace process will have to be complete.

In the meantime, Chirac wants to bring the warming relations out of the closet and show everyone how much closer Israel and France are at seeing eye-to-eye on Middle East issues. Sharon will respond in kind: Their mutual interests are more important to him than his natural restraint from anything that smacks of "Europe."