Middle East History: It Happened in November; De Gaulle Calls Jews Domineering, Israel an Expansionist State

By Neff, Donald | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Middle East History: It Happened in November; De Gaulle Calls Jews Domineering, Israel an Expansionist State


Neff, Donald, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN NOVEMBER; De Gaulle Calls Jews Domineering, Israel an Expansionist State

It was 32 years ago, on Nov. 27, 1967, when President Charles de Gaulle of France publicly described Jews as an "elite people, sure of themselves and domineering" and Israel as an expansionist state.(1) De Gaulle's comment came in the context of his disappointment that Israel had launched the 1967 war against his strong advice and then had occupied large areas containing nearly a million Palestinians. A firestorm of charges of anti-Semitism followed his remarks, culminating in an interesting exchange by two of the world's great elder statesmen, David Ben-Gurion and De Gaulle.(2)

While the rare public exchange of views between these two heroic figures caught the headlines, little noted was a profound geopolitical shift taking place. France was ending its strong support of Israel and the United States was replacing France as Israel's major patron. Up to this point the United States had sometimes taken a fairly balanced attitude to the Middle East conflict.

After the 1967 war, when France severed its close ties to Israel, U.S. policy under the influence first of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and later of Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger became blatantly pro-Israel.

It was a shift that was to cost America over the rest of the millennium around $100 billion in aid to Israel and the abandonment by Washington of all semblance of American even-handedness. Henceforth, the United States became not only Israel's patron but increasingly its protector, and ultimately what it has become today -- the defense attorney for the Jewish state against the world community's condemnations of Israel's repeated violations of international law.

Relations between France and Israel had been especially warm in the 1950s as France was losing its colonial grip on Algeria. Although France joined Britain and the United States in 1952 in the Tripartite Declaration, banning arms sales to the Middle East, France soon began secretly supplying Israel with weapons, including tanks and warplanes and ultimately facilities for a nuclear weapons program. By 1956, the France-Israel connection was so close that, with Britain, they plotted a joint war against Egypt that became known as the infamous Suez Crisis.

On Oct. 29, Israel struck across the Sinai Peninsula, its troops occupying the east bank of the Suez Canal within a week. A vast armada of British and French ships and warplanes then began pounding Egypt west of the canal, and landing troops in the Suez Canal zone. It was only stem opposition from President Dwight D. Eisenhower that forced the three countries to withdraw their forces in deep humiliation.(3)

The shared humiliation left Franco-Israeli relations closer than ever. The two countries had signed in 1953 a modest nuclear cooperation agreement covering heavy water and uranium production. A year after the Suez Crisis, nuclear cooperation was substantially broadened. Although the details remain secret the agreement was believed to have provided Israel with a large (24-megawatt) reactor capable of producing one or two bombs' worth of plutonium a year.(4) France also provided Israel with blueprints for a reprocessing plant for turning spent fuel into weapons' grade plutonium.(5)

Relations began to cool with the accession of Charles de Gaulle as president of France's Fifth Republic (1958-1969). At the same time, Israel's relations with the United States began improving. The coming to power of John F. Kennedy in 1961 saw the first sale of major arms to Israel by Washington. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, became the most pro-Israel president up to that time, substantially opening America's arsenal to Israel.

The breaking point for De Gaulle was Israel's launching of the 1967 war against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. He had urgently implored Israel not to attack. But Israel ignored him and attacked on June 5. …

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