French President Jacques Chirac told Jewish leaders here that although Palestinian President Yasir Arafat is to blame for the failure to reach a peace agreement with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel must still work with Arafat because only he can reach a settlement.
That statement did not sit well with the half-dozen Jewish leaders who met with Chirac Monday at the French Consulate, according to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
"Arafat always wants a little bit more," Foxman later told The Jewish Week.
But he said he found it "offensive" to hear Chirac suggest that because Arafat is the Palestinian leader, for Israel to refuse to deal with him "gives the message that it rejects a peaceful settlement."
"And he’s convinced he’s right," Foxman said of Chirac.
During the private 90-minute meeting, Chirac said he shared the Jewish leaders’ concerns about the military buildup in Iran and assured them that he was pursuing a "zero tolerance" policy on anti-Semitism in France.
The meeting was attended also by senior French government officials and a delegation of French Jewish leaders.
"It’s clear that he did his best to clear the air and improve relations" with the Jewish community, said Avi Beker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress. "There was no doubt that he prepared himself well, and he rejected the accusation that the French government is not countering anti-Semitism."
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Chirac pointed out that there had been 172 anti-Semitic incidents during the first six months of last year and 72 during the comparable period this year.
Chirac, who was re-elected along with a conservative prime minister in June 2002, attributed the drop in anti-Semitic incidents to his zero tolerance policy.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the Jewish leaders and Chirac had the "greatest convergence of views on Iran."
"He said he saw on television a military parade in Iran that displayed rockets with a range of just over 1,000 miles, and he acknowledged that this was a dangerous situation," Harris said. "He said that strong pressure was being exerted on Iran and that the European Union suspended trade negotiations with it."
In the parade, Iran unveiled the Shahab-3 missile, which is capable of reaching Israel and reportedly can carry a nuclear warhead. A banner on the missiles is said to have read "Israel must be wiped off the map."
Hoenlein noted that Chirac referred to Israel as the Jewish state, and he said the Jewish leaders asked him to say that publicly. In addition, Chirac said he would support the convening of a conference next year in Berlin dealing exclusively with anti-Semitism. At least one nation wants to broaden the conference to include all forms of xenophobia.
Chirac raised the issue of Syria, Foxman said. The French leader said he was trying to stop the Syrians from hosting terrorist organizations but without success.
Foxman said Chirac came to the meeting "to repair the relationship" with the Jewish community, which the ADL leader said was important.
"He spent the first 20 minutes defending France’s history," Foxman said. "He said the Vichy government was only in a small part of France [during World War II]. I said, why did it take 50 years from someone like to you to take responsibility for [the Vichy government’s actions against Jews]?"
Chirac, who addressed the group through a translator, did not reply.