French faux pas infuriates Israel

PARIS — France's new ambassador has yet to arrive in Tel Aviv, but already he has succeeded in antagonizing Israel's political establishment and France's Jewish community.

Gerard Araud was sharing his views on his new posting with Foreign Ministry colleagues last week over crudités and cocktails when he failed to notice an Israeli journalist carefully jotting down his reflections on the Middle East.

Waiting patiently for the ambassador to finish his musings, journalist Boaz Bismuth politely introduced himself as the Paris correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. Then he asked Araud why he had repeatedly referred to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "a thug" and described Israel as "a paranoid country."

"But you don't intend to publish that," Araud said, according to an account by Bismuth in Yediot on Sunday.

The comments surprised many of Israel's supporters in France because Araud, unlike many of his predecessors, was considered friendly toward Israel and apparently had been handpicked by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin with the aim of improving relations between Paris and Jerusalem.

Moreover, the posting wasn't Araud's first mission in Tel Aviv: The diplomat began his career as a secretary in the embassy, where he was remembered fondly by his Israeli counterparts.

Once his remarks hit the Israeli media, French authorities sought to limit the damage.

"Gerard Araud denies in the most formal manner the collection of remarks attributed to him by an Israeli journalist regarding the state of Israel and its prime minister," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The cool formality of the denial, to say nothing of the lack of apology, failed to satisfy many, including Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat, who demanded that Israel refuse to accept Araud's credentials.

A similar response came from Michel Darmon, president of the France-Israel Association, who said Araud's comments are "very serious, insulting and undignified for an ambassador, particularly one who is going to Israel."

Darmon added that he was surprised by Araud's reported remarks, noting that "we know him and he has always been positive" toward Israel.

Araud is not the first French diplomat to suffer from off-the-cuff remarks during what he thought was a private occasion.

In December 2001, Daniel Bernard, France's ambassador to England, infamously described Israel as "that sh___y little country" during a private dinner party — without noticing that the Jewish wife of the editor of The Daily Telegraph was present.

Semi-denials and, later, apologies were offered before Bernard was quietly reassigned to France's embassy in Algeria.