Comment: The French envoy and ‘The Jerusalem Post’

By David Horovitz December 10, 2004

On Tuesday, at his initiative, the French Ambassador to Israel, Gerard Araud, came to visit me at my office. I have been editor-in-chief here for only two months, we had not previously met, and he graciously wanted to say hello. He was accompanied by two other embassy officials, Renaud Ferrand and Yael Avran.

At one point in the conversation, when he was talking about his readiness to be helpful to The Post’s reporters, I suggested that he might want to write an occasional opinion piece and also that I might come down to Tel Aviv to interview him in his office. He readily assented.

We carried on talking, and got on to Iran, its nuclear drive, Europe’s efforts to curb it, Israel’s concerns. What he was saying was so interesting that I asked him if it would be all right for me to write his comments down there and then. He said yes.

I took down the notes in front of him and, after he had gone, wrote them up for the article that appeared in Wednesday’s Post, headlined ‘French ambassador praises Israel’s ‘restraint.”

Obviously, I began the story with his most interesting comments, in which he departed from familiar French critical rhetoric and said that he thought ‘Israel has tried to show the utmost restraint’ in the conflict with the Palestinians since 2000.

I have met recently with two other prominent overseas ambassadors, and discussed sensitive issues. Not a word of those conversations has appeared in The Jerusalem Post in any form, and nor will it, because both of those ambassadors prefaced our conversations with the request that they be kept private.

Neither Ambassador Araud nor his two colleagues, by contrast, set any such ground rules.

On Wednesday morning, Ferrand telephoned me to express his surprise that the ambassador’s comments had appeared in that day’s paper. I asked why. He said because the ambassador had assumed that the conversation was not for publication. He’d had private conversations with my predecessor, Ferrand said. But the ambassador made no such request of me, I pointed out.

No, he did not, Ferrand immediately acknowledged, adding that this was indeed their mistake, not mine. We ended the call politely. And, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter.

However, a spokeswoman at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when asked later that same day by the Post’s correspondent in Paris, Michel Zlotowski, whether the ambassador’s comments marked a shift in French policy, tried to mislead him in her response.

Rather than addressing the content of Araud’s comments, she asserted to Zlotowski that they had been made ‘off the record.’ When told that this was not the case, she turned the issue over to another spokesman, Herve Ladsous, who compounded the dishonesty in a written statement later that day. Abandoning the ‘off the record’ claim, Ladsous now asserted that the comments had been ‘taken out of context’ and even questioned their veracity, describing the remarks as having been ‘allegedly uttered.’

One can only conclude that the French diplomatic corps is horrified by the notion that their ambassador here said something nice about Israel, and that the optimistic hope expressed in our pages on Thursday by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, to the effect that maybe those comments reflected success for Shalom’s own efforts to prod France toward a more balanced position, is sadly misplaced.

Ambassador Araud has had ‘off the record’ difficulties before, our Paris correspondent has reminded me. A few weeks before taking up his Tel Aviv posting, at the annual meeting of French ambassadors organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the French capital in the summer of 2003, he reportedly called Israel ‘a paranoid country’ and said that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ‘acts like a lout.’

I say reportedly because he was overheard by Yediot Ahronoth reporter Boaz Bissmuth, who published the comments. The French Foreign Affairs Ministry spokespeople tried to deny those remarks were made, too.

So which is the real Araud? The one who told me that he thinks Israel ‘has tried to show restraint’ and that ‘war is always dirty’ and whose ministry tried to claim he hadn’t? Or the one who reportedly said in Bissmuth’s earshot that Israel is paranoid and Sharon a lout, and whose ministry tried to claim he hadn’t?

Or maybe it’s the one who gave an interview yesterday in which he said ‘I think that there is a sort of anti-French neurosis in this country’ and that ‘The Israelis are convinced that the French are anti-Israel.’ This time Araud was speaking to Army Radio, which will complicate his ministry’s practiced efforts at denial.

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