French President Francois Hollande sent a letter Wednesday to leaders of the local Jewish community, saying that the government's support for an anti-Israeli Palestinian resolution in UNESCO, which ignored any Jewish connection to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, was a result of a "misunderstanding."
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In the letter, Hollande committed to not support any similar resolutions that may arise in the future. Hollande sent the text after a string of complaints from the Israeli government over the last week and in answer to related agitation within the French Jewish community.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Hollande a letter of his own at the beginning of the week in which he strongly protested France's support for the UNESCO resolution. In the the letter, a senior Israeli source said, Netanyahu noted that the resolution represented a distortion of history.
In his letter to Hollande, Netanyahu wrote that UNESCO, the organization responsible for safeguarding world heritage sites, "has stooped to rewriting a basic and irrefutable part of human history." Netanyahu added that while "Israel has no illusions regarding the United Nations' commitment to truth or fairness," it was shocked to see its "French friends raising their hands in favor of this disgraceful decision."
In the letter, Netanyahu stressed that the international community should not enable Palestinian efforts to deny the Jewish history and to perpetuate the myth of Israel's aggression on the Temple Mount. "It is not only immoral, it is also dangerous," Netanyahu noted in the letter.
Meanwhile, local Jewish leaders requested urgent meetings with senior French ministers and sent letters of protest to Hollande, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and to Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
On Wednesday, a few days after Netanyahu sent his letter of protest, Hollande sent a letter to the president of the Israelite Central Consistory of France, Jol Mergui, in which he tried to clarify the affair of the UNESCO vote, claiming that it was a "misunderstanding" that does not reflect the French position on the issue of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
"I would like to guarantee that the French position on the question of Jerusalem has not changed and that is to protect freedom of access and worship in Jerusalem, the most important city to the three largest monotheistic religions that belongs to all believers, Jews, Christians and Muslims," wrote Hollande, according to the letter obtained by Haaretz. "I also wish to reiterate France's committment to the status quo in the holy places in Jerusalem. It is essential to the present context of rising tensions."
Hollande also wrote that Foreign Minister Ayrault, who is set to arrive in Israel Saturday night and will meet Sunday with Netanyahu, and Prime Minister Valls, who will visit Israel on May 22, have delivered the same message in conversations with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Hollande continued, promising that in the next vote on similar proposals regarding Jerusalem or the Temple Mount during the next meeting of UNESCO's Executive Committee, set to take place in October, France will not support wording similar to that in the decision a few weeks ago.
"As per my request, the foreign minister will personally and closely follow the details of the next decision on this subject," wrote Hollande. "France will not sign a text that will distance her from the same principles I mentioned."
A senior source in Jerusalem said that Hollande's letter, as well as comments from Valls in parliament a few days ago and France's interior minister during a meeting with leaders in the Jewish community at the beginning of the week, show that the government in Paris understands it made a serious mistake by supporting the Palestinian proposal regarding Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
The source also said that Hollande and Ayrault believe that the UNESCO vote hurt their attempts to convince Israel to cooperate with the French initiative to convene an international peace conference on the Israel-Palestinian conflict by the end of the year.
On the backdrop of the political tensions with Israel, France's Foreign Minister Ayrault will meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Sunday to discuss the French push for peace. Netanyahu is expected to repeat his criticism of France's position on the UNESCO vote, though Ayrault will try to convince Netanyahu not to reject the proposal all together.
Three weeks ago, the French government sent invitations to over 20 countries to a meeting of foreign ministers on the Israel-Palestinian issue. The meeting, scheduled to take place on May 30, will not be attended by Israeli or Palestinian representatives and will be a preliminary meeting before the peace conference France hopes to convene during 2016. France hopes that the representatives will agree to an agenda for the peace conference as well as the principles to renew the peace process.
Over the last few weeks, Netanyahu had harsh words for the French government regarding the proposed peace conference during meetings with European foreign minister who were visiting Israel. Sources said that the prime minister was furious that France had voted in favor of the UNESCO decision.
"They have no shame," said Netanyahu. "With this kind of vote they want us to come to a peace conference in Paris and believe that it will be fair, logical and objective?"
France claims in their defense that they voted in favor of the decision in order to convince the Palestinians to pause their attempts to push for a resolution against Israeli settlements in the West Bank in the UN Security Council.