Some 5,000 French Jews participated in an aliyah fair in Paris.
The fair, organized and run by the Jewish Agency, took place Sunday as French voters went to the polls and elected Francois Hollande as their new president, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, considered the favored choice in the Jewish community.
“I cannot recall having seen such a massive number of people interested in aliyah since the days when lines of people stretched out of the Israeli embassy in Moscow,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who attended the fair. The annual fair usually attracts about 2,000 visitors, according to the Jewish Agency.
The French Jewish community is the largest in Europe, with some 500,000 members, according to the Jewish Agency.
The fair comes on the heels of an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which a rabbi and his two young sons and the daughter of the head of the school were killed.
On a visit Monday to Toulouse, Sharansky said the Jewish Agency and the Israel Trauma Coalition will send counselors to the Ozar Hatorah school from Israel in the coming days, followed by a delegation of Israeli youth counselors. The professionals are charged with helping the students and their parents, as well as the teaching staff, return to their normal routine following the March attack.
“I came to Toulouse in order to strengthen the children and the community, but also to remind them that the Jewish Agency will strengthen their connection to Israel and assist those who are interested in making aliyah,” said Sharansky, though he added that aliyah should not be based solely on a tragedy like the one in Toulouse.
Jewish reaction was mixed to the election of the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande as the president of France.
The European Jewish Congress congratulated Hollande, who was elected Sunday over Nicolas Sarkozy with 51.7 percent of the vote to 48.3 percent for the incumbent.
“Our recent meeting with Mr. Hollande was very constructive and touched on many areas of concern to the Jewish community,” EJC President Moshe Kantor said in a statement. “I believe we have a sympathetic ear in the new French leadership and we look forward to continuing this relationship with the new president.”
Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewry, told reporters Monday in New York that he was concerned that Hollande’s election would lead to a rise in the anti-Israel left.
“We know that some of the parties who are supposed to be partners of the coalition in favor of Francois Hollande are not friends of Israel. The part they will play we will see,” he said, according to the Jewish Press.
More than 92 percent of French nationals who voted in Sunday’s election at the French Embassy in Tel Aviv cast their ballot for Sarkozy, the center-left candidate, according to reports.
Israeli President Shimon Peres congratulated Hollande on his victory.
“On behalf of the Israeli nation, it is a pleasure for me to send my sincere congratulations on your election to the post of President of France. I am confident that under your leadership, the French people will look to the future with hope, security and a spirit of unity.”
Hollande became the first Socialist president of France in nearly two decades. Sarkozy, of the Union for a Popular Movement party, was considered the favored choice among French Jews.
Sarkozy conceded shortly after the polls closed, wishing his successor luck in handling difficult times in France and in Europe.
Francois Hollande became the first Socialist president of France in nearly two decades, defeating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
With half the votes counted nationwide, Hollande was leading Sarkozy, 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent. Sarkozy, the center-left candidate, was considered the favored candidate among French Jews.
Sarkozy, of the Union for a Popular Movement party, conceded shortly after the polls closed. He wished his successor luck in handling difficult times in France and in Europe.
“Francois Hollande is the president of the republic; he must be respected,” Sarkozy said.
Polls had showed Hollande finishing with about 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Sarkozy, the first French president to lose re-election in 30 years.
Hollande is France’s first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand, who served from 1981 to 1995.
Sarkozy is the ninth European leader to be ousted since the start of the continent’s debt crisis, Bloomberg reported.
The standoff in France between police and Mohammed Merah, the suspect in the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, stretched into its 13th hour Wednesday.
The standoff began at 3 a.m. Wednesday outside the Toulouse home of Merah, a 24-year-old French national of Algerian descent who claims ties to al-Qaida was continuing, French authorities said.
Merah reportedly has been known to French intelligence for many years.
On Wednesday morning, thousands attended the funeral in Jerusalem of the attack’s four victims two days earlier.
French police surrounded Merah’s home in the morning. Merah, in contact with the police, reportedly had agreed to turn himself later in the day before abruptly cutting off communication with police. The suspect’s brother, and possibly other siblings, reportedly had been arrested, and two police officers were injured in a shootout outside the home, according to reports.
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The Ozar Hatorah school reopened Wednesday for the first time since the attack, in which a man riding a motorbike opened fire Monday outside the school where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two young sons, as well as the 7-year-old daughter of the school’s principal, were killed in the attack.
Thousands attended the funeral of the victims on Wednesday morning at Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery.
“Your grief, your pain is ours too,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at the funeral. “All of France is in shock.”
On Tuesday, three former French soldiers accused of having neo-Nazi ties who had been suspected of possible involvement in the shooting attack were questioned and released by French police.
Forensic tests found that the weapon used in the attack at the school was the same one used in a pair of fatal shooting attacks last week targeting off-duty French soldiers in and near Toulouse. The shootings, which also were committed by a gunman on a motorbike, left three soldiers dead and another seriously wounded. The soldiers who were shot were of North African or Caribbean background.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy met with leaders of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF to reassure them of his support for Israel.
The meeting comes following reports that Sarkozy called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” during a conversation with President Obama at the G20 conference earlier this month.
Sarkozy “responded to a lot of our concerns,” said Francis Kalifat, CRIF treasurer, who attended the intimate lunch that also included CRIF President Richard Prasquier, and France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, among others.
Those concerns include Israel’s security, France’s recent vote in favor of Palestinian UNESCO membership, and also reports of a private conversation between Sarkozy and Barack Obama, in which journalists overheard Sarkozy calling Netanyahu a “liar.”
“The President reaffirmed his friendship and support for the state of Israel from the very beginning of our conversation. He wanted to remind us that throughout his political career, he has had a profound attachment to Israel,” said Kalifat. Sarkozy also spoke of his “strong, long relationship and friendship with Netanyahu and his family,” and “expressed his firm desire to move beyond the misunderstanding following an off-record conversation.”
Kalifat said Sarkozy gave the group “certain explanations,” for the recent conversation with Obama, in which both leaders didn’t realize they were speaking into microphones that were turned on, allowing several journalists to hear three minutes of the conversation in an adjoining room. But Sarkozy asked that the group do not repeat that explanation. Sarkozy has said his words were taken out of context.
“We told him about our questions and preoccupations, notably concerning France’s UNESCO vote, and we talked about the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership,” said Kalifat, who explained that French Jews were especially worried about the status of Jewish cultural sites on Palestinian territory, which they hope will remain accessible, and “not transformed into mosques.”
The French president, “said in a firm manner, that there was no question France would accept that kind of thing,” said Kalifat. “They would do everything to block any downplaying of the Jewish presence and characteristic” of cultural sites, such as Rachel’s tomb.
Concerning a Palestinian bid for U.N. membership, Sarkozy said France would only support the idea of a “non-member observer state” status for the territories, but under strict conditions that included Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a return to bilateral negotiations without preconditions, recognition of Israel’s security requirements, and a promise not to submit lawsuits against Israel in international courts.
France’s consul to the Gaza Strip, his wife and 13-year-old daughter were injured during an Israeli air strike on Sunday night, French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
Valero told reporters the three were hit by shrapnel at their residence in Gaza, which is located 200 meters from the site of an Israeli missile attack, he added.
“France condemns the consequences of the raid,” he said. “While we are all for Israeli security, France recalls the utmost necessity to avoid civilian harm,” Valero said, without specifying the nature of their injuries.
The raid, which killed one policeman and wounded four others after Palestinian militants from the coastal territory fired a rocket into southern Israel, is likely to strain already difficult relations between Paris and Jerusalem.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has written to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reaffirm friendship despite what he refers to as their “differing views on the Middle East”.
Sarkozy’s comments, in a condolence message to Netanyahu for the death of his father-in-law, seemed to make an effort to try to clear the air a week after a reported gaffe this month at the G20 summit in Cannes, when he was overheard telling U.S. President Barack Obama he thought Netanyahu was “a liar”.
Reporting By Vicky Buffery; writing by John Irish
Does Nicolas Sarkozy really hate Benjamin Netanyahu? Does President Obama really sympathize?
And does it really matter?
The fleeting, private exchange between the French and U.S. presidents at a summit in Cannes, France, made international headlines, and its meaning is still being parsed by political pundits and pro-Israel activists.
The Anti-Defamation League was the only major centrist Jewish group to publicly rebuke Obama for the Nov. 3 exchange, which was overheard by several journalists at the G-20 summit who were plugged into a listening device monitoring the leaders that was switched on a few minutes early.
“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy reportedly said—no one recorded the exchange—and Obama supposedly replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day.”
The ADL called the exchange “un-Presidential.”
“President Obama’s response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in his Nov. 8 statement. “In light of the revelations here, we hope that the Obama Administration will do everything it can to reassure Israel that the relationship remains on a sure footing and to reinvigorate the trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, which clearly is not what it should be.”
The ADL’s broadside surprised others among mainstream pro-Israel groups who thought the issue was best dealt with as the conversation was meant to be—privately. One source reported hearing a top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee quipping, “Obama and Bibi talk every day? This is great news!”
Foxman told JTA that his organization’s policy is to respond to press inquiries, and in this case they were plentiful.
“We got a lot of calls asking for comment,” he said. “There is a certain threshold of calls, and this was one of those situations.”
Foxman said he recognized that leaders sometimes let down their guard.
“Listen, I would love to know what Obama thinks about Sarkozy,” he said, referring to U.S. frustration with the French leader’s tendency to go it alone diplomatically without consulting others.
Foxman added, however, that relationships are important.
“There’s no question, attitude informs policy,” he said. “It doesn’t overwhelm, but it does inform.”
Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC foreign policy director, said the exchange was revealing but its significance should not be overstated. Sarkozy is famous for his cutting remarks about other leaders, Rosen said.
“This is Sarkozy’s habit and form of expression,” he said.
Foxman, for his part, said he was disappointed that Obama “didn’t dissuade Sarkozy, didn’t disabuse him.”
But pro-Israel Democrats close to Obama said that a stirring rebuke from one president to another might play well on TV’s “The West Wing,” but that it tends not to happen in real life.
“What you have is a one-sentence reaction to something Sarkozy says, which is a translation of a translation,” said one top Jewish donor, noting that French journalists transcribed a conversation in English into French, and then it was re-translated in American news reports. “Sometimes it has an exclamation point, sometimes not—don’t put words into the president’s mouth!”
The donor also said that it was unfair to indict Obama absent a recording.
“We haven’t heard the tone of his voice,” the donor said.
Obama’s defenders also noted that in the same exchange, the U.S. president was taking his French counterpart to task for supporting full Palestinian membership at UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural and scientific affiliate. Obama reportedly told Sarkozy that he “didn’t appreciate” Sarkozy’s failure to consult on the issue, but added “that is now behind us.”
“Whether Obama’s sympathetic response to Sarkozy’s complaint was genuine or merely a sympathetic nod to build rapport hardly matters,” Seth Chalmers, the assistant director at New York University’s Berman Jewish Policy Archive, wrote in a blog post. “In either case, our President’s message was that, irrespective of the Israeli Prime Minister’s personality, Israel’s preferred course of negotiations rather than unilateral UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is correct.”
When queried in Hawaii by a reporter about the exchange, Obama sounded a similar note.
While the U.S. leader said he would not comment on “conversations that I have with individual leaders,” he then added, “The primary conversation I had with President Sarkozy in that meeting revolved around my significant disappointment that France had voted in favor of the Palestinians joining UNESCO.”
But Republicans said the exchange was further evidence that Obama was abandoning Israel.
“At a moment when the Jewish state is isolated and under threat, we cannot have an American president who is disdainful of our special relationship with Israel,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a leading contender for the 2012 presidential nod, said in a statement.
Obama would not be the first American president with whom Netanyahu has clashed. During his first term in office, Netanyahu had a rocky relationship with President Bill Clinton. Even Netanyahu’s most prominent defender in Obama’s circle, longtime U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross—who announced last week that he would be leaving the White House—has noted the challenges of working with the Israeli leader.
In his 2004 book, “The Missing Peace,” Ross, who previously served in the Clinton administration, said that Netanyahu “would try to have it both ways,” seeking recognition for concessions that he promises but sometimes does not make good on.
Aside from its implications for American-Israeli relations, the Obama-Sarkozy exchange also highlighted the strained relations that some Europe leaders who are otherwise considered relatively sympathetic to Israel have with Netanyahu. Sarkozy himself once was considered friendly with Netanyahu, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly clashed earlier this year with the Israeli prime minister over settlement construction and the stalled peace process.
But Netanyahu’s defenders say it is unfair to blame the Israeli leader for the moribund state of the peace process. The Washington Post’s Op-Ed editor, Jackson Diehl, said the bigger problem has been the recalcitrance by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Netanyahu has been an occasionally difficult but ultimately cooperative partner,” Diehl wrote, noting Netanyahu’s embrace of a two-state solution and his partial settlement freeze.
He added that “Abbas, it’s fair to say, has gone from resisting U.S. and French diplomacy to actively seeking to undermine it. Yet it is Netanyahu whom Sarkozy finds ‘unbearable,’ and whom Obama groans at having to ‘deal with every day.’ If there is an explanation for this, it must be personal; in substance, it makes little sense.”
The Anti-Defamation League called a reported exchange between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama disparaging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “decidedly unpresidential.”
According to reports of their conversation at the Nov. 3 G20 summit in Cannes, which was overheard by reporters via an open microphone, the French president said, “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.” Obama reportedly replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day.”
“President Obama’s response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement issued Tuesday. “In light of the revelations here, we hope that the Obama Administration will do everything it can to reassure Israel that the relationship remains on a sure footing and to reinvigorate the trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, which clearly is not what it should be.
“What is sad is that we now have to worry to what extent these private views inform foreign policy decisions of the U.S. and France—two singularly important players in the peace process,” he said.
The Arret sur Images website said Sarkozy was responding to Obama’s concern that the French leader had not warned him about France’s surprise vote in favor of Palestinian UNESCO membership. The website also reported that Obama asked Sarkozy to try to “convince” the Palestinians to slow down their bid for U.N. membership.
“You have to pass the message along to the Palestinians that they must stop this immediately,” Obama said of the membership bid, according to Reuters.
Sarkozy confirmed that France would not take any unilateral decisions during the forthcoming Security Council debate on the subject.
“I am with you on that,” Obama replied, according to Reuters.
AFP and Reuters both confirmed the initial Arret sur Images report, and AFP reported that it interviewed several journalists who said they heard the private conversation right before a joint news conference by the two leaders.
Several journalists overheard the exchange, which was captured by a live microphone unbeknownest to the two leaders, but it was not immediately reported.
According to Arret sur Images, Obama and Sarkozy were speaking in a room equipped with microphones normally used to facilitate translation during public speaking. An event organizer did not distribute the headphones typically used to connect to the translation boxes, but several journalists plugged in their own earphones and could hear some three minutes at the end of the conversation.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy branded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a liar” in a private conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama that was accidentally broadcast to journalists during last week’s G20 summit in Cannes.
“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy told Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on, enabling reporters in a separate location to listen in to a simultaneous translation.
“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama replied, according to the French interpreter.
The technical gaffe is likely to cause great embarrassment to all three leaders as they look to work together to intensify international pressure on Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
The conversation was not initially reported by the small group of journalists who overheard it because it was considered private and off-the-record. But the comments have since emerged on French websites and can be confirmed by Reuters.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the conversation when asked by reporters traveling with Obama to an event in Philadelphia.
Obama’s apparent failure to defend Netanyahu is likely to be leapt on by his Republican foes, who are looking to unseat him in next year’s presidential election and have portrayed him as hostile to Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region.
Pushing Netanyahu risks alienating Israel’s strong base of support among the U.S. public and in Congress.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment, but one of his deputies, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, played down the episode.
“Everyone talks about everyone. Sometimes even good friends say things about each other, certainly in such competitive professions,” Shalom, a former foreign minister and rival of Netanyahu in the rightist Likud party, told Israel’s Army Radio.
“So you have to consider the main things. Is Obama a friend of Israel? Is Sarkozy a friend of Israel? Is their policy a consistent policy of support for Israel? The answer to all of these questions is affirmative and, as far as I’m concerned, that is what’s important.”
Obama and Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship as U.S. efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal have foundered, with the U.S. president openly criticizing Jewish settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories.
It was unclear why exactly Sarkozy had criticized Netanyahu. However, European diplomats have largely blamed Israel for the breakdown in peace talks and have expressed anger over Netanyahu’s approval of large-scale settlement building.
During their bilateral meeting on November 3, on the sidelines of the Cannes summit, Obama criticized Sarkozy’s surprise decision to vote in favor of a Palestinian request for membership of the U.N. cultural heritage agency UNESCO.
“I didn’t appreciate your way of presenting things over the Palestinian membership of UNESCO. It weakened us. You should have consulted us, but that is now behind us,” Obama was quoted as saying.
The October 31 UNESCO vote marked a success for the Palestinians in their broader thrust for recognition as a sovereign state in the U.N. system—a unilateral initiative fiercely opposed by Israel and the United States.
As a result of the vote, Washington was compelled to halt its funding for UNESCO under a 1990s law that prohibits Washington from giving money to any U.N. body that grants membership to groups that do not have full, legal statehood.
Obama told Sarkozy that he was worried about the impact if Washington had to pull funding from other U.N. bodies such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the IAEA nuclear watchdog if the Palestinians gained membership there.
“You have to pass the message along to the Palestinians that they must stop this immediately,” Obama said.
The day the conversation took place, the Palestinians announced that they would not seek membership of any other U.N. agency.
Sarkozy confirmed that France would not take any unilateral decisions when the U.N. Security Council discusses a Palestinian membership request, a debate expected later this month.
“I am with you on that,” Obama replied.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Roche
President Obama called for keeping up international pressure on Iran amid news reports that Israel may be preparing for war with the Islamic Republic.
The president’s comments, made Thursday at a joint news conference in France with President Nicolas Sarkozy, were delivered several days before the scheduled release of a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program.
“We had the opportunity also to talk about a range of security issues,” Obama said of his conversation with Sarkozy. “One in particular that I want to mention is the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”
Obama added that “President Sarkozy and I agreed on the need to maintain the unprecedented international pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”
The comments came as the Israel Defense Forces held a drill in central Israel simulating missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Israeli defense officials said the drills were scheduled months ago.
The Home Front Command drill Thursday was a simulation of a rocket attack on a civilian area. The drill included opening evacuation centers and handing out gas masks.
The drill was held following several days of reports in the Israeli media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are pushing the Israeli Cabinet to approve an attack on Iran. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman strenuously denied the reports in an interview Wednesday on Israel Radio.
Also Wednesday, the Israeli military successfully test fired a ballistic missile from the Palmachim Airbase in central Israel, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry. It is widely believed that Israel has missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
French Jewish groups said they feel betrayed by their country’s vote in favor of extending UNESCO membership to the Palestinians.
“President Sarkozy broke his word and betrayed the ties of friendship that link France and Israel,” said the UPJF, a Jewish group of business professionals and CEOs, in a statement issued shortly after Monday’s vote.
The UPJF and the Jewish umbrella group, CRIF, both said in statements that France’s position did not correlate with recent declarations by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who argued that the Palestinian bid for membership was premature.
As a result, “France has judicially legitimized an authoritarian, racist regime in an international organism without respecting conditions for admission,”the UPJF said.
The CRIF said it “strongly deplored” France’s vote, which came while “several significant European states voted against” the Palestinian bid.
French officials told reporters that the decision to admit Palestine into UNESCO was a difficult one that was hacked out over the weekend amid stiff tension.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed on Wednesday that the United Nations give the Palestinians status as a U.N. observer state while setting out a roadmap for peace within one year.
In an impassioned speech at the U.N. General Assembly devoted entirely to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sarkozy warned that any veto against Palestinian efforts to seek full statehood in the Security Council “risked engendering a cycle of violence” in the Middle East.”
“We can no longer wait … Let us cease our endless debates on the parameters and begin negotiations,” he said. “The moment has come to build peace for Palestinian and Israeli children.”
France has grown increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress on the peace process, saying that negotiations should be widened to include a more hands-on role for Europe amid an ongoing impasse in U.S.-led efforts.
Calling for a change of method, Sarkozy said negotiations should begin within one month, an agreement on borders and security should happen within six months and a definitive agreement be reached within a year.
“Today we are facing a very difficult choice. Each of us knows that Palestine cannot immediately obtain full and complete recognition of the status of United Nations member state,” Sarkozy said. “But who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?”
Sarkozy said the General Assembly should consider offering the Palestinians a status like that held by the Vatican, which would restore hope and mark progress to a final status.
“Why not envisage offering Palestine the status of United Nations observer state? This would be an important step forward. Most important, it would mean emerging from a state of immobility that favors only the extremists.”
The Palestinians have said that as an alternative to the Security Council, where the United States has promised to veto any full membership vote, they could ask the General Assembly to approve upgrading their membership from “entity” to “non-member observer state.”
Sarkozy met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday and will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. He called on the Palestinians to reaffirm Israel’s right to exist and have security, while cautioning that Israel should show restraint.
A spokesman for the Palestinian president said Abbas would study Sarkozy’s proposals.
“The ultimate objective of peace negotiations must by the mutual recognition of two states for two peoples, based on the 1967 parameters with the exchange of agreed and equivalent territories,” Sarkozy said.
A Western diplomatic source said the time frame announced by Sarkozy was “one of the elements of a package” that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has been working on and which she presented to EU foreign ministers on Tuesday.
Paris has upped its diplomatic push over the last six months on the issue as the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, fearing that failure to revive the peace process could undermine that momentum.
Sarkozy also has an eye on presidential elections next year with the repercussions of an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict potentially spilling over at home, where there are more than 5 million Muslims and a Jewish community of between 600,000 and 700,000.
He warned on Tuesday that if there was no break in the impasse it could poison Arab countries’ evolution to democracy.
After a hesitant response to the Arab Spring, Sarkozy has been an outspoken defender of the changes in the region, leading international efforts to help Libyan rebels in their uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.
France has previously offered to convene negotiators in Paris to discuss ideas for a Palestinian state, but Israel has traditionally been reluctant to embrace a major European role in Middle East peacemaking, preferring to have its main ally, the United States, take the lead.
Sarkozy proposed a Palestinian donor conference in Paris this fall. “Let’s stop believing that just one country or one small group of countries can resolve a problem of such complexity,” he said.
Editing by Doina Chiacu
French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to introduce a ban that prohibits the wearing of the full veil in public places.
In an address to his cabinet, Sarkozy said he would introduce legislation in May that categorically bans the niqab, the full veil worn by some Muslim women, in all public places. Previous proposals had limited the scope of public areas off-limits to those donning the veil, in which only the eyes remain uncovered.
The veil “hurts the dignity of women and is not acceptable in French society,” a presidential spokesman, Luc Chatel, quoted Sarkozy as saying. “We’re legislating for the future. Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and a rejection of our values.”
Polls show a majority of French voters back some sort of veil ban, but legal authorities have warned that such a law may lack a constitutional basis.
PARIS (JTA) — As a career politician with a love for the urbane, Ehud Olmert might have been expected to shine at the Union for the Mediterranean conference on Sunday.
But the Israeli prime minister, faced with a spiraling corruption scandal at home, appeared subdued — some said defeated — during this week’s gathering of dozens of world leaders in Paris.
The frisson of speculation that the summit might see a first face-to-face encounter between Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad fizzled when Assad smilingly and repeatedly sidestepped the Israeli leader.
Nonetheless Assad, having been invited to Paris largely as a result of the recent public launch of indirect peace talks with Israel, made the most of an unusual welcome by a leading Western country.
The French media feted Syria’s dictator and first lady while Olmert, having left his wife, Aliza, in Jerusalem, cut a far lonelier figure at the Grand Palais.
Israeli pundits were unsparing in their censure.
One newspaper cartoon showed Olmert, whom police now suspect of bilking the state by double billing travel expenses for himself and his family, among other allegations, begging for change on the Champs Elysees.
“Syria threw Olmert a fetid bone and received in exchange half the kingdom,” Sever Plocker wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “Assad was received at the Mediterranean countries’ conference in Paris as a victorious hero, while Olmert was received as a loser and a guest who forced his presence on everyone.”
Such fierce critiques once might have drawn counter-fire from Olmert, who denies breaking the law and insists his diplomatic initiatives with Syria and the Palestinians are the best way to win peace and security for Israel.
But unlike in previous trips abroad, Olmert largely avoided his own media entourage. He delivered a brief statement on the flight out from Tel Aviv but took no questions. In Paris, he gave no news conferences or background briefings.
Famously a fitness freak, Olmert decided against taking his morning run at the gym of the lavish Crillon Hotel.
“He’s been looking tired,” an aide said by way of explanation.
Bereft of fresh material, several Israeli journalists wondered at the sudden silence of a man who long had appeared to relish the tussle of open debate. The consensus was that he did not want to face uncomfortable questions about his legal situation, but there was also an underlying sense of regret.
“Perhaps we overdid it?” one TV reporter murmured, apparently in reference to the coverage of the scandal that erupted in May over Olmert’s financial ties to American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.
A political commentator from a major Israeli Web site shrugged and said, “Look, we were too easy on Sharon, and look what happened after the Gaza pullout. We should have been tougher back then. We have to be tough now.”
A newspaper correspondent who speaks regularly with Olmert said the prime minister remains defiant. But the journalist added, “I can’t imagine how he’s going to find a way out of this mess, and my sense is he knows this, too.”
Olmert has vowed to resign if indicted. A sooner exit could come in the form of a September primary election in his Kadima Party.
In a move unusual for an incumbent, Olmert has not said whether he intends to try to keep the party helm. Political sources said he first wants to see if his lawyers can undermine Talansky under cross-examination, which might boost his domestic standing.
Polls suggest the Kadima vote would be won by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who accompanied Olmert to Paris but rarely appeared by his side.
Asked about the prime minister’s conduct during the trip, a senior aide, his eyes bleary from fatigue, shrugged and said simply, “He’s a man who always weighs his options.”
PARIS (JTA)—While the French-initiated summit for the Union for the Mediterranean did not produce any major breakthroughs, French President Nicolas Sarkozy recognized one achievement.
“The fact that we were all in the same room is already a lot,” Sarkozy said at a news conference Sunday in the French capital following the inaugural summit, which featured the participation of every Arab country other than Libya with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Conference participants approved six projects and signed an accord that, among other things, talks of developing peace and fighting terrorism. All 43 nations also signed on to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Sarkozy underlined that much work still needed to be done to implement the projects.
Peace between Israel and Syria and the Palestinian Authority was a major focus of the event.
On Sunday, Sarkozy hosted a meeting of Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and a day earlier Syrian President Bashar Assad met with Sarkozy and the new president of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, to discuss peace in the region.
Olmert spoke about his morning discussion with Abbas.
“It seems to me that we have never been closer to the possibility of a peace accord than we are today,” Olmert told reporters.
“We are living through an essential and critical moment,” he said, evoking the “very serious negotiations” currently under way.
Abbas said at the news conference that “it is in all of our interests to reach” peace. “We should achieve peace for the people of the Middle East in general, but also for peace in the world.”
The summit, which aimed to normalize Israel’s relationship with its Mediterranean Arab neighbors through shared economic and cultural projects, was considered risky due to the huge differences among the participating nations.
Referring to critics who questioned the feasibility of the French-initiated project, Sarkozy asked in his opening remarks Sunday, “Who can live without taking risks?”
He added, “The very idea of life is that: to take risks. The risk we are taking in Europe is to extend a hand of friendship to [Egyptian] President [Hosni] Mubarak and to invite Prime Minister Olmert as a friend. If the risk we are taking is just that, extending a hand of friendship, and trying to construct peace, then it would have been an even greater risk not to have taken that risk.”
At the conference, Assad sat opposite Olmert at a large, circular table set in alphabetical order so the disputing countries were not placed side by side. The leaders did not meet one on one, nor did they shake hands.
Afterward, Sarkozy dismissed rumors that Assad stepped out before Olmert’s closed-door speech to member states, insisting that the event went off “without an incident.”
But according to several diplomats and participants, Assad and Abbas left for meetings on the sidelines of the summit. Assad reportedly met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
An Israeli official said that Assad left the room half an hour before Olmert’s speech.
A European source reportedly confirmed that both Assad and Abbas were absent, but insisted their absence was “neither ostentatious, nor intended to create an incident.”
Mubarak wondered, “If Mr Assad has things to do outside of the plenary session, what is the problem?”
Following a Saturday meeting with Sarkozy, a visibly cheerful Assad told reporters that he wanted France to co-mediate any direct talks between Israel and Syria with the United States when a new American president takes office next year.
At a news conference Saturday, Sarkozy told reporters that he asked the Syrian leader to “bring him proof” that Iran was not planning to build nuclear weapons.
The next day Sarkozy told journalists that during his meeting with Assad, he discussed the Syrian leader’s potential contribution to the freeing of Israeli kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who is also a French citizen, held captive by Hamas since 2006.
Assad is in a position to speak to Hamas on the subject because of Syria’s close ties to the group.
Syria and Israel are holding indirect talks through Turkey. Both have raised the specter of direct talks but there have been no agreements.
Olmert said he hoped the indirect talks would be upgraded to direct talks “in the future,” but added, “The Syrian track will under no circumstances come at the expense of the Palestinian talks, which are of utmost importance to us.”
Assad’s visit to France, a first since Syria and France froze ties in 2005, marks his newly improved relationship with Europe.
In his opening remarks Sunday, Mubarak said, “This new phase we’re entering into must be an age of peace in the Middle East, and I would invite Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert to pursue their peace negotiations in order to achieve total peace, and in order to establish an independent Palestinian state and to open a new era of peace in the Middle East.”
Mubarak, who was presiding over the conference with Sarkozy, called for a realistic approach to Sunday’s discussions while maintaining a new and positive outlook for improved negotiations.
“We must not overlook the consequences of the gap between the countries of the South and those of the North,” he said. “We must take a realistic view of that gap, but we must also approach it in a new spirit with a new philosophy.”
Following the conference, Sarkozy congratulated “the Arab countries for their courage” in accepting the invitation to join Israel at the discussion table.
Until last week it appeared that a handful of key Arab states, such as Algeria, would not attend the summit because of Israel’s presence and fears that northern European nations would take an upper hand in the conference, which initially did not include all of the European Union.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II and King Mohammed VI of Morocco sent senior representatives because of reported scheduling problems.
All the participants were invited to Monday’s Bastille Day celebrations, which at first incited an outcry from human rights activists who criticized Assad’s presence.
Sarkozy announced that the participants had adopted six projects that involve cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea, as well as creating maritime and land highways, civil protection programs, solar energy laboratories, a Euro-Mediterranean university and a business development initiative for the region.
“In four hours we couldn’t solve everything,” Sarkozy joked, “but now we need to develop [discussions] and go farther.”
PARIS (JTA)—It was the snub of the day.
Despite overtures by Israel’s prime minister to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Assad refused to acknowledge, shake hands, be photographed with or listen to Ehud Olmert when the two shared a conference room at Sunday’s Union for the Mediterranean in Paris.
Just hours before the Paris summit, Olmert sent Assad a message pressing for direct talks between the two countries before a new U.S. administration takes office, and insisting on his “serious” desire for peace.
Israel and Syria are engaged in indirect peace talks through mediation by Turkey, which delivered Olmert’s latest message to Assad.
But Assad chose to rebuff Olmert rather than engage in any rapprochement with him at the 43-nation Paris confab.
“We are not seeking symbols,” Assad told a French TV station, saying he avoided a handshake with Olmert because Syria and Israel are still only in indirect peace talks.
In some ways, the elaborate conference held at the Grand Palais, an imposing Art Nouveau structure with a glass roof and pale green arches, served to highlight the long road left to go before Israel is recognized by some of its Arab neighbors in the Mediterranean region.
Several Arab leaders refused to be photographed with the Israeli leader, so there was no joint photo at the meeting’s end.
A Reuters photographer captured a shot of Olmert apparently trying to catch Assad’s attention while Assad blocks his face with his hand to avoid eye contact.
On Monday, an Israeli official said in an interview with JTA that although “Olmert sat through and listened to everything Assad said” during the Syrian leader’s speech at the conference, “Assad left when Olmert spoke.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy denied that any intentional snub took place Sunday. Assad reportedly left the conference room for hallway consultations a half-hour before Olmert spoke.
Last week, Israeli and French officials had expressed hopes that some sort of direct contact between Assad and Olmert might take place at the weekend summit.
Before the conference, Olmert asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to convey to Assad that Olmert is “extremely serious in his desire to move forward in peace talks” with Syria, Israeli officials said.
Despite the undiplomatic maneuvering, attendees and observers noted that the broad participation in the conference may have helped lay a foundation for improved dialogue and cooperation in the region.
The leaders of such countries as Syria, Algeria, Morocco and Israel all shared a common table, and they reached some concrete agreements toward improving cooperation on regional issues.
Assad’s cold shoulder wasn’t the only snub at the conference. Morocco’s king reportedly skipped a meeting attended by the president of Algeria due to the rivalry between the two countries.
Despite Assad’s avoidance of Olmert, Assad told Al-Jazeera TV on Sunday that he wants to “normalize” relations with Israel once a peace accord is reached.
JERUSALEM [JTA]—France is ready to help Israel achieve peace but wants concessions toward the Palestinians, Nicolas Sarkozy told the Knesset.
Sarkozy, on his first visit to Israel as French president, gave an impassioned speech in parliament Monday emphasizing the depth of his government’s—and his own—affinity for the Jewish state.
“Jews the world over feel a powerful bond to their homeland. The fate of every Jew is tied up to the fate of all other Jews. The fact that the world has such a prospering Jewish state is a source of pride and honor to every one of them,” said Sarkozy, who had a Jewish grandfather and has tried to crack down on a recent surge of anti-Semitism in France.
Alluding to Iran and its allies like Hamas and Hezbollah, Sarkozy said there should be no tolerance for those who seek Israel’s destruction.
A nuclear-armed Iran, he added, “is totally unacceptable” and should be prevented through the combined might of the international community.
Sarkozy also spoke out in favor of speedily setting up a peaceful Palestinian state which, he said, cannot be established unless Israel makes way in the West Bank.
“There can be no peace without a halt to settlement activity,” he said, adding that Jerusalem should be a shared Israeli-Palestinian capital. The remarks received a mostly warm reception, though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a welcoming address, suggested that some diplomatic disputes with Paris will remain unresolved.
“I will not try, here, to obfuscate the disagreements between us,” Olmert said. “We do not always see eye to eye on every detail.”
But he added that “on the fundamental, significant, important and crucial issues which decree the fate of the State of Israel, you stand strongly by us,” he said, adding a hearty “Bravo!”
Bush Administration Slams Lukashenko
The Bush administration called on the president of Belarus to retract anti-Semitic remarks.
“We have seen reports of President Lukashenko’s disturbing and irresponsible comments,” a State Department statement said. “We find them deeply offensive and call upon him to disavow these remarks. World leaders have a special responsibility to combat anti-Semitism, not perpetuate it.”
In an Oct. 12 broadcast, Alexander Lukashenko said of Bobruisk, a Belarusian port city: “This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Bobruisk into a pigsty. Look at Israel — I was there.”
Lukashenko was apparently soliciting favorable reaction from Iran, which has increased trade with Belarus in recent months. A Democrat and a Republican are soliciting signatures among U.S. House of Representatives colleagues for a letter slamming the remarks.
“Your government’s tolerance of state-sponsored anti-Semitism is well documented,” says the letter to Lukashenko initiated by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, the congressional body that monitors human rights overseas, and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). “Anti-Semitic acts are only sporadically investigated and the Government allows state enterprises to freely print and distribute anti-Semitic material. Anti-Semitic acts of vandalism, intimidation and violence are on the rise. Amid this climate of anti-Semitism, your public statements are particularly dangerous.”
Sarkozy: Israel’s a Miracle
Ehud Olmert won rare French endorsement for Israel and its diplomatic policies. The Israeli prime minister, on a European tour to drum up support ahead of his U.S.-sponsored peace conference with the Palestinians, was hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Monday. Israeli officials quoted Sarkozy as telling Olmert that he considers Israel’s creation a “miracle” of the 20th century.
Though the French president had a Jewish grandfather, he described his pro-Israel sentiments as less a matter of ancestry and more an acknowledgment of the country’s role in introducing democracy to the Middle East. During his meeting with Olmert, Sarkozy reiterated his strenuous opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and said Israel’s security is a “red line” that must not be crossed. But France has yet to support the idea of preventive military action as a last resort for blocking Tehran’s atomic ambitions.
In a further departure from France’s traditional equivocation on Middle East affairs, Sarkozy came out against the Palestinians’ demand that their refugees get a “right of return” to land now in Israel. According to Israeli officials, Sarkozy said it is unreasonable for Palestinians to expect statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while wanting their compatriots resettled in the neighboring Jewish state. Olmert traveled to London Tuesday for talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Coulter: For Jews, Jesus Was a ‘Lunatic’
Jews believe Jesus was a “raving lunatic,” Ann Coulter said. The celebrity pundit appeared on Oct. 15 on Michael Medved’s radio show to defend comments on another show that she hoped Jews would be “perfected” by becoming Christians. Coulter told Medved, an Orthodox Jew, that the sentiment was unremarkable; most belief systems wish for universal conversion, she posited.
“Of course a Christian wants everyone to be a Christian,” she said. “I assume all vegans think the world would be better if everyone were a vegan. And the global warming wackos would like everyone to believe in their crackpot global warming theory. And nonsmokers would like everyone not to smoke.” However, she added: “Jews don’t accept the New Testament, so, you know, as long as we’re playing this new sport of ‘he who is offended first wins,’ if anyone’s going to be offended by anyone else’s religion, the Jews believe that my savior, a Jew, was a raving lunatic, and you don’t see me sniffling and crying.”
There is no Jewish theology of Jesus. There are a small number of isolated talmudic and midrashic references describing him as a rabbinical student who strayed and who lured others into heresy; these have had virtually no impact on Jewish views of Christianity. Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog, first highlighted Coulter’s remarks.
Ahmadinejad Honor Outrages Armenian Jews
The Eurasian Jewish Congress condemned Armenia for honoring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president was presented with an honorary doctorate Monday at Yerevan State University, as well as a gold medal. Ahmadinejad was visiting Armenia for a two-day state visit. In an interview with the Rosbalt news agency, Eurasian Jewish Congress representative and Armenian Jewish community President Rima Varzhepetyan expressed outrage at the decision to honor Ahmadinejad.
“The constant anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric of the president of Iran, as well as the regularly organized statements in denial of the Holocaust, place Ahmadinejad in line with theories not unlike those of Dr. Goebbels, one of the chief ideologues of Nazi ideology in Germany,” Varzhepetyan said.
Court Lets Neo-Nazis March in Prague
A Prague court ruled that a neo-Nazi group can march through the city’s Jewish quarter on Kristallnacht. This is the second time that the court has overturned a City Hall ban on the march by the National Resistance, according to the Czech daily Lidove noviny.
The rally is scheduled for Nov. 10, the anniversary of the 1938 German pogrom.
Prague officials banned the march, saying it would contribute to inciting intolerance and hatred against citizens on the basis of their ethnicity, origin and religious conviction. Prague’s Jewish community will gather the same day for prayers to remember the victims of Kristallnacht, according to Lidove noviny.
Florida Governor Chided Over Mezuzah
Florida’s governor has been criticized for hanging a mezuzah outside his office in Tallahassee. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said it could turn the state building into a shrine for other religious icons, the Palm Beach Post reported Friday, and is the equivalent of the government endorsing a religious symbol.
“The problem is that if he says yes to this religious symbol, he’s not going to be able to say no to any other religious symbol,” Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, told the Post. “While it may look like a lovely gesture, it’s very short sighted.”