Israeli PM's remarks on Paris attacks spark tensions in French-Israeli ties

Bassem Aly , Thursday 15 Jan 2015

Benyamin Netanyahu's comments to Jews in France that 'the State of Israel is your home' ruffle feathers in the Elysee Palace

French soldiers patrol the street in a Jewish neighbourhood near a religious school and a synagogue as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan after last week's attacks in Paris January 14, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Israeli Premier Benyamin Netanyahu's call for French Jews — who represent around two percent of France's 66-million population — to think of Israel as "home," and his attendance, against Paris's wishes, at the Sunday anti-terrorism rally led by world leaders in the French capital has caused unease in relations between France and Israel.

The story began with the killing of four Jews by Amedy Coulibaly, a jihadist, in a kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris. The incident occurred as French security forces were hunting the gunmen who killed 12 people in an attack on the country's best-known satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, a day earlier.

French authorities, in response, deployed 10,000 troops to protect "sensitive sites." About 4,700 police have been assigned the task of safeguarding Jewish institutions, mainly schools and synagogues.

At this point, Israel decided to comment on the matter through its prime minister. "To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray; the State of Israel is your home," Netanyahu said in a statement Saturday.

According to AFP, Netanyahu made a similar statement during a visit to France last October.

Netanyahu's words apparently irked French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who asserted that "France, without Jews, is not France."

Speaking outside the Jewish supermarket that was attacked in Paris, Valls said that the "Jews of France, for several years, have been frightened." But asserted that "Today, we are Charlie, all police officers, all the Jews of France."

Jewish leading figures in France met with President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace on Sunday.

Hollande said he will count on the military to protect Jewish possessions if needed. Fifty world leaders joined more than one million people in an anti-terrorism rally in Paris — as well as different parts of France — Sunday. Netanyahu was one of these heads of state. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennet travelled to Paris with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu delivered a speech at a Paris synagogue after the march in a ceremony in which Hollande, Valls and ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy took part. Nevertheless, the French president was reportedly not entirely comfortable with Netanyahu's presence in the march.

An Israeli source, involved in connections between Paris and Tel Aviv, said that Hollande sent a message to Netanyahu not to visit Paris and join the rally, Israel's Haaretz reported Monday. The source pointed out that Hollande's national security adviser, Jacques Audibert delivered, this message to Israel through his Israeli counterpart Yossi Cohen.

The top-level Israeli official argued that Hollande "wanted the event to focus on demonstrating solidarity with France" and "avoid anything liable to divert attention to other controversial issues, like Jewish-Muslim relations or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

In Jerusalem, the four killed Jewish men were buried in a funeral attended by thousands of Israeli citizens and political leaders. French Energy Minister Ségolène Royal attended the funeral as a representative of the French government. Announcing that the killed Jews would be awarded France's Legion of Honour, Royal emphasised that France "is proud to hold the largest population of Jews in Europe."

President of the Consistoire, under the umbrella of which all Jewish organisations in France work, met with 20 European Jewish figures at Israeli's Knesset Tuesday. “In the past, we said we don’t need Israel’s help. The opposite was true; we supported Israel. The situation changed and today the Jews of France need the State of Israel’s help," The Jerusalem Post quoted Joel Margi as saying.

Margi claimed that Jews in France are in a "difficult situation" and added that it is "hard to describe how afraid our children are to go to Jewish schools in France."

How France will address the fears of its Jewish community is yet to be seen.  

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