De Gaulle's presidency and Israeli–French relations

NAJLA M. SHAHWAN
Published 23.01.2020 00:59
Updated 23.01.2020 11:46

Jan. 8 marked the proclamation of Gen. Charles de Gaulle as the first president of the new Fifth Republic in France in 1959. Retiring president, M. René Coty, welcomed the new president saying, "The first among Frenchmen is now the first in France."

De Gaulle was one of the most notable leaders in French history, the symbol of the French resistance and the leader of post-war France.

The vastness of his political achievements in the years between 1940, when he inaugurated the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, and 1969, when he resigned decisively from the presidency, ought to command more than grudging respect.

De Gaulle directed France’s struggle against German occupation, saved the country from civil war twice, founded the new and lasting political regime of France’s Fifth Republic, healed a number of age-old French divisions on the issue of religion, and liquidated France’s colonial empire in Algeria.

Along the way, he fundamentally changed France’s mission in world politics and was especially keen to circumscribe Anglo-Saxon hegemony across the globe.

He supported the developing world in its aspirations for greater power and self-determination because he wanted France to become the leading intermediary between the developed and the developing worlds.

By refusing to accept defeat in the depth of World War II and demonstrating a willingness to fight to the death to defend his homeland, he restored pride and grandeur after the disgrace of occupation.

The regional influence

It is in the Middle East, though, that de Gaulle’s legacy is most frequently invoked and appropriated, and his shadow looms prominently over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He criticized Israel’s capture of Arab lands after the 1967 war, warning the Israelis that their continued presence as an occupying power would only breed “oppression, repression and resistance.”

For those frustrated with the stalling tactics of successive Israeli governments, France’s comprehensive withdrawal from Algeria in the early 1960s – which involved the repatriation of 1 million French settlers – made optimists hope that a putative Israeli de Gaulle might one day trade land for peace but unfortunately, to date, no courageous prime minister has really grasped the nettle on this issue.

Palestinians also draw inspiration from de Gaulle, though of an earlier incarnation as the national liberator who, despite lacking material resources and being reviled as a terrorist by his adversaries, managed against all odds to create a powerful resistance movement and embody his people’s aspirations to self-determination and sovereignty.

The warm relations

Relations between France and Israel had been especially warm in the 1950s as France was losing its colonial grip on Algeria. Although France joined Britain and the United States in 1952 in the Tripartite Declaration, banning arms sales to the Middle East, France soon began secretly supplying Israel with weapons, including tanks and warplanes and ultimately facilities for a nuclear weapons program. The two countries had signed in 1953 a modest nuclear cooperation agreement covering heavy water and uranium production.

By 1956, the France-Israel connection was so close that, with Britain, they plotted a joint war against Egypt known as the infamous Suez Crisis.

In the following years, the two countries collaborated closely on security matters. France supplied advanced weaponry to Israel when no other country was willing to do so. The relationship remained unchanged when de Gaulle regained power in 1958.

France sold Israel Mirage fighter jets, which are the most modern aircraft available to France, and the general staffs of both countries continued to work together on a variety of subjects. De Gaulle himself was considered a supporter of Israel, and David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, regarded him as a friend.

France shifts its policy

French-Israeli relations began to cool with the accession of de Gaulle as president of France’s Fifth Republic. The breaking point for de Gaulle was when Israel began the 1967 war against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. On May 24, President de Gaulle had prophetically warned Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban and urgently implored Israel not to attack but Israel ignored him and attacked on June 5.

On Nov. 27, 1967, President de Gaulle publicly described Jews as an “elite people, sure of themselves and domineering” and Israel as an expansionist state. De Gaulle’s comment came in the context of his disappointment that Israel had launched the 1967 war against his strong advice and then had occupied large areas with more than 1 million Palestinian residents.

During the crisis that followed – the Six-Day War from May to June 1967, and even long before the war – de Gaulle started to criticize Israel and began demonstrating restraint in his policies toward it. On June 21, 1967, he blamed Israel for the war and in a news conference on Nov. 27, 1967, de Gaulle set out his beliefs as to why Israel launched the Six-Day War.

During the Franco-British campaign in the Suez Canal, we saw the emergence of a belligerent Israel, with its mind set on expansion. Later, Israel’s actions to double its population by bringing new immigrant settlers suggested that the land it had acquired would not suffice for long and it would use any chance given to expand it.

The message was clear: Israel coveted new territories and the May-June crisis in the Middle East provided an excuse to conduct an expansionist war.

De Gaulle also hinted that he had become aware of Israel’s aggression and expansionist goals as early as the Sinai campaign in 1956. This was unequivocal moral criticism by de Gaulle of the Jewish state and gave the French policy of supporting the Arabs a moral dimension.

In Israel, his comments provoked outrage. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who considered himself a friend of de Gaulle, wrote a long letter to the French president trying to refute the theory regarding Israel's expansionist goals and Israel’s foreign minister. Eban wrote a similar letter to his French counterpart Maurice Couve de Murville. Yet de Gaulle’s critical view of Israel remained.

In his memoirs, written shortly before his death, de Gaulle recalled a conversation with Ben-Gurion in June 1961. "When Ben-Gurion spoke to me of his plan to settle 4 or 5 million Jews in Israel, which could not contain them within her present frontiers, and revealed to me his intention of extending these frontiers at the earliest opportunity, I urged him not to do so. ‘France,’ I said, ‘will help you to survive in the future as she has helped you in the past, whatever happens. However, she is not prepared to provide you with the means of conquering new territory. You have brought off a remarkable achievement. Do not overdo it now. Suppress the pride, which, according to Aeschylus, ‘is the son of happiness and devours its father.’ Rather than pursue ambitions which would plunge the East into terrible upheavals and would gradually lose you international sympathy, devote yourselves to pursuing the astonishing exploitation of a country that was until recently a desert, and to establishing harmonious relations with your neighbors."

Here too, de Gaulle sought to prove that he was aware of Israel’s plans for expansion as early as 1961 and warned Ben Gurion not to realize them.

The next cooperation

At this stage, a geopolitical shift was taking place and France was ending its strong support to Israel. At the same time, Israel’s relations with the United States began improving. The coming to power of John F. Kennedy in 1961 saw the first sale of major arms to Israel by Washington. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, became the most pro-Israel president up to that time, substantially opening America’s arsenal to Israel. In addition, the United States was replacing France as Israel’s major patron.

This shift was to cost America over the years billions of dollars in aid to Israel and the abandonment by Washington of all semblance of American even-handedness. Henceforth, the United States became not only Israel’s patron but increasingly its protector, and ultimately what it has become today – the defense attorney for the Jewish state against the world community’s condemnations of Israel’s continuous occupation of the Palestinian territories and its repeated violations of international laws.

On the day of Israel’s attack, France announced a total arms embargo on the Middle East. By that time, however, Israel was receiving most of its weaponry from the United States and the embargo had little effect. De Gaulle also quietly ended France’s support of Israel’s nuclear program. He reveals in his memoirs, “... French cooperation in the construction of a factory near Beersheva (Dimona, Israel’s nuclear facility) for the transformation of uranium into plutonium – from which, one fine day, atomic bombs might emerge – was brought to an end.” Israel’s program, however, was so far advanced that it no longer needed France.

The change in views

De Gaulle’s statements and actions plainly show that prior to the mid-1960s, his attitude toward Israel was still positive. After 1965, however, de Gaulle’s views on Israel changed dramatically.

One can identify three distinct phases of de Gaulle’s perception of Israel. During the first stage, from the establishment of the State of Israel until the mid-1960s, de Gaulle had positive opinions about the Jewish state. He liked the Zionist movement and was impressed by the achievements of the new state. He viewed Israel as a responsible, moderate and rational player in a region that was marked by extremism and impulsiveness. During the second period, from 1963 to 1967, this thinking changed because of Israel’s retaliation policy and de Gaulle thought that Israel overreacted to attacks that were often perpetrated by non-governmental factions.

He was especially enraged by acts that penalized Israel’s more moderate neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, with whom France had very good ties, and he thought that its responses lacked restraint and were irresponsible. At this time, he started seeing Israel as a country aiming to expand its borders and thereby questioned its morality. He linked these objectives to traits that had supposedly defined Jews since ancient times.

De Gaulle’s belief in the importance of safeguarding France’s moral aura and his own historical image was important in shaping French policy on Israel and he felt that this policy was not only for the good of France but also justifiably moral. His willingness to completely adopt a pro-Arab position was seen largely during the post-Six-Day War era.

De Gaulle was a great leader who believed that power is not in occupation and courage is in trading land for peace.

* Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers

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