The French Jewish community is preparing to devote all its energies to ensuring Israel is included in any forthcoming Mediterranean Union.
“The Mediterranean Union project and the possible absence of Israel is our first concern today,” Richard Prasquier, the head of French umbrella Jewish organisation CRIF, told the JC.
A Euro-Mediterranean free-trade zone is due to be launched in 2010, as envisaged by the 1995 Barcelona Process. The Mediterranean Union would have increasing involvement with the EU, eventually sharing common institutions with it.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy — described by Israeli premier Ehud Olmert as “one of the rare heads of state to maintain an unchanged enthusiastic attitude towards Israel even after his election” — remains a close ally of the Jewish state. He is expected to participate in the upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations and supports a Mediterranean Union counting Israel among its important members.
But the Jewish community wonders whether Mr Sarkozy will remain firm in his plans. Several Muslim countries such as Libya have demanded it be excluded.
“We know that some officials are trying to undermine Israel’s importance in the Mediterranean region and we must stress that the Jewish nation played throughout history a central role in Mediterranean countries. Israel’s place is therefore unquestionable,” continued Mr Prasquier.
The Mediterranean Union, which could eventually take over from the Barcelona Process, will take centre stage at the annual CRIF dinner next month, where Mr Sarkozy is expected to address the community’s concern.
“We do not want the Mediterranean Union to turn into a new Francophonie, the International French-speaking Organisation, from which Israel is absent, although hundreds of thousands of Israelis speak French,” explained Mr Prasquier.
Former president Jacques Chirac failed to put an end to the “boycott” of Israel by the International Francophone Organisation, which includes over 50 states. In October 2002 the French-Israeli journalist Gideon Koutz, who heads the Foreign Press Association in France and was covering the Francophone summit, was expelled from Lebanon for holding Israeli nationality. “We must avoid a second such situation,” said Mr Prasquier, who is expected to accompany Mr Sarkozy to Israel in May.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered one of the obstacles that blocked the Barcelona Process, next to the unrest in the Maghreb and troubled Muslim-Christian relations.
However, Israeli officials remain confident over the Mediterranean Union.
“French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner assured us we were ‘inside’ the project, and since the initiative is led by the French, we are not concerned,” Israeli embassy spokeswoman Nina Ben Ami told the JC. “We’re in favour of the project. Anything that brings closer civilisation and religion is viewed positively by Israel.”
If successful, the Mediterranean Union could boost relations between Israel and Arab countries and give a new platform to multilateral talks on trade, industrial and scientific cooperation.
“Entering the Mediterranean Union would have psychological implications first because Israel would be recognised by its Arab neighbours,” political scientist Raphael Drai told the JC. “And there are economical implications, since North African markets would open up and deals would be sealed with countries that produce raw materials.”
Although building a consensus over the union might take time, he said, “this union […] will assist North African development, so the populations would remain in their countries of origin and not immigrate massively to Europe. The union would bring security and stability.”