The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Is President Macron capable of reshaping Franco-Israeli relations?

France needs Israel today as a close and firm ally, more than ever before, as part of its broad regional alignment from Abu Dhabi to Paris. President Macron’s assertive policies in the Mediterranean, which include facing down Turkey’s dangerous hegemonic ambitions, provide an opportunity for France and Israel to institutionalize high-level bilateral and multilateral consultations, complemented by close intelligence cooperation and joint strategic planning.

Israel and France can find common ground (in consultation with Greece and Egypt) on a broad range of issues from Libya to Lebanon, and across the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Iran. The commonalities of interests should also act to reduce the salience of differences between the two countries regarding the Palestinian question.

The New Geopolitics of Franco-Israeli Relations

Over the last year, France has positioned itself as an active force, indeed a leader, in efforts to restore a balance of power in the Mediterranean; a balance that has been upset by President Erdogan of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman and Islamist ambitions. President Emmanuel Macron, a young statesman who has sought to radically change the internal political map of France, has revived a vision of France as an independent strategic player with unique influence in Europe, Africa, and in the Middle East; and specifically, following in former President Sarkozy’s footsteps, in the Mediterranean arena too.

In close coordination with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (the latter being a major French ally in the Gulf), Macron has defined the protection of moderate Moslem nations and the struggle against Islamist radicalism as core French interests. This includes the following arenas:

  • In the Sahel, where French troops have been directly involved in Chad and Mali.
  • In Libya, where France has provided help to the LNA forces headed by Khalifa Haftar, opposing the rule of the “Government of National Accord” in Tripoli that has Islamist links.
  • In Lebanon, where Macron has visited twice since the Beirut blast, and France has taken the lead in demanding government reforms, thereby challenging the dominance of Hizballah.
  • In the eastern Mediterranean, where Macron has opposed Turkish policies, in full support of Greek and Egyptian positions.
  • Regarding Iran, France continues to oppose Tehran’s advance towards nuclear weapons. (France does not want to see additional countries joining “The Nuclear Club.”)

Beyond the regional dimension, Macron’s goal is apparently to make France relevant again and a leading nation in the EU, particularly in the wake of the UK’s Brexit. In the domestic sphere, a robust stance on all these fronts could weaken the campaigns against Macron’s leadership and strengthen his image.

On practically every issue, France’s geopolitical interests dovetail with Israel’s. Consequently, France should take a fresh look at the benefits of closer relations with Israel. In turn, Israel should take the initiative in creating a formal/informal framework for bilateral talks, possibly complemented later by a multilateral framework including Greece, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Macron and his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, share the view that France needs to engage in realpolitik and conduct a diplomacy backed by military and intelligence capabilities. If so, they may find that partnering with Israel initiative suits their needs.

France’s current policy in the Mediterranean and the Middle East stems from Ankara’s November 2019 intervention in Libya. Having already had a complex relationship with Haftar while Le Drian was defense minister, and seeking to curb Moslem Brotherhood subversion in general and in Egypt specifically, France is now backing Haftar, commander of the “Libyan National Army”  (LNA), against Turkey and the Islamist, Tripoli-based “Government of National Accord” (GNA). 

In May 2020, Turkish-backed GNA forces compelled the LNA to abandon its siege of the capital and retreat. Egypt, backed by France, then warned the GNA not to advance eastwards beyond the Sirte-Jufra line. The Turks, for their part, want to stop France in its tracks, gain control of central Libya and its resources, empower the Moslem Brotherhood in the region, and above all, to become the dominant factor in the eastern Mediterranean and unravel the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF) alliance (which ties together France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority).

Macron has also taken a firm stance against Turkey’s aggressive moves toward Greece. Whereas Germany, albeit in close coordination with France, has assumed the role of mediator, Macron is the only leader actively confronting Turkish policy in the eastern Mediterranean and not just posturing against it. In so doing he has made France an effective ally of Egypt, the UAE, and Israel.

Prospects for Change in Franco-Israeli Relations

Over the years, Israel’s relations with France have seen dramatic ups and downs. Israeli attitudes are still colored by the crisis leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel felt betrayed by de Gaulle’s pro-Arab policy. Back then, supposed realpolitik considerations drove the two countries apart. Now it may bring them together.

Macron already has expressed reservations about the Palestinian campaign to make Europe an ally against Israel. Although he pays standard lip service to the need for a Palestinian state, he has not closed the door on President Trump’s Mideast peace initiative, and more significantly, he has protested the delegitimization of Israel. Back in 2017, at a commemoration of the deportations of Jews by the Nazis and the Vichy regime, he unequivocally denounced anti-Zionism as a new form of anti-Semitism.

More recently France welcomed Israel’s normalization agreement with France’s close ally against Turkey, the UAE, as well as the agreement with Bahrain. In the background are the interests shared by France, the UAE, Israel, Greece, and Egypt. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen recently was quoted as saying that Turkey may pose a greater threat to Israel than Iran. The quote may have been taken out of context. Nevertheless, while Turkey is taking a decidedly hostile stance toward Israel on issues such as Jerusalem and Gaza, it is not an active enemy.

Still, Cohen’s words indicate that Israel, like France, needs to reconsider its strategic priorities. Erdogan’s arrogant response to France’s moves in the eastern Mediterranean reflects his belligerent state of mind. So does his statement that converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque will pave the way to liberating the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Macron and his loyal associate Le Drian want to rehabilitate French influence. Unlike de Gaulle’s time, French Middle East policy today requires partnership with Israel, rather than alienation from it and adoption of a pro-Arab stance. The overt alignment of Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Jerusalem offers a diplomatic and military platform for rebuilding past ties based on emergent common interests and a new outlook on the Middle East. Macron is driven not just by changed sentiments toward Israel but by the realization that if France’s interventions in Lebanon and Libya and efforts to contain Turkey are to succeed, rapprochement with Israel is essential.

Macron faces two main obstacles. First, in the foreign policy sphere, France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs still subscribes to the “traditional” view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which has caused tensions between Paris and Jerusalem for decades. In addition, aspects of the Iranian nuclear issue, on which France had been firmer than former President Obama but not as firm as Israel now expects in light of Trump’s policy, remain a serious bone of contention between the two countries. (This is also true regarding Hezbollah’s legal status in France.) Second, in the domestic sphere, the large French Moslem community remains politically affiliated with left-wing parties, who are strongly pro-Palestinian and fundamentally anti-Israeli.

Nevertheless, France now recognizes that the binary “Arab versus Israel” approach to the Middle East is obsolete. It remains to be seen whether Macron will have the courage to take a new political direction, challenging the French Moslem community while rallying the Gaullist right, the center, and the Catholics against Le Pen and the extreme right.

Recommendations for Israeli Policy

Facing a new geopolitical map in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean, Israel should take advantage of the opportunity to revamp its relations with France. This should include both formal and informal mechanisms for regular, at least biannual, strategic talks.  

Israel should also initiate high-level visits to cement the geopolitical understandings.

Such a bilateral format could lead to a multilateral, perhaps discreet, consultation format including Egypt, the UAE, Greece, and Cyprus, working together to secure US support.

Israeli decision-makers need to overcome negative associations with France that have held sway since 1967. A pragmatic Israeli approach has enabled basically positive relations with France for years, and the time is ripe to serve both countries’ interests by moving to a new level.

Israel also should leverage its peace agreement with the UAE to forge closer ties with France. The UAE is particularly well positioned to encourage Paris to improve its relations with Jerusalem.

Both France and Israel have much to gain from an upgrade in their relations.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.