Why did the French stand firm against the initial, pre-Geneva nuclear deal with Iran?
The answer, it turns out, has to do, at least in part, with good old-fashioned pro-Israel advocacy.
This is a story that has not been told. But it should be, especially in the wake of Chanukah, a holiday that in its way celebrates the judicious use of Jewish power, or, as they say in Paris, pouvoir Juif.
When François Hollande was elected president of France in May 2012, some right-wing pro-Israel voices in Israel and America doubted he would be a friend to Israel because Hollande is a socialist — just like Obama! — and he had defeated the more conservative part-Jewish incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, and, well, because he spoke French.
But when the first round of serious negotiations with the Iranians concluded, it was Hollande who raised public concerns over the deal, and encouraged the American secretary of state to do better.
“I know you rely on your own strength for defense, but know that France is your friend and will not allow Iran access to nuclear arms, for it would a be threat for Israel and the world,” Hollande said in his Nov. 18 address to the Knesset.
The French, according to Larry Hochberg, “are more concerned than Americans are. This is not totally an accident. Our side is having an effect on French foreign policy for a change.”
Hochberg is co-founder and chair of European Leadership Network, which goes by the unnecessarily sinister-sounding acronym of ELNET (evidently its branding team never saw the “Terminator” movies).
“The tough position of France in regard to the Iranian nuclear program,” ELNET co-founder and director Raanan Eliaz wrote me this week in an e-mail, “which was publicly visible in previous weeks and has led to holding off a problematic agreement, did not occur by accident and did not surprise those who are familiar with ELNET. French activists, members of ELNET-France are in some measure responsible for this development.”
Founded in 2007, ELNET members use education, financial contributions and voting power to draw European governments closer to Israel.
If this all sounds very familiar, it should — ELNET’s founders conceived it as a European American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Whatever your take on AIPAC’s positions, there is no denying it has been singularly successful in advancing official Israeli interests at the federal and state level. ELNET duplicated the secrets of AIPAC’s success in European capitals. Its strategic adviser is Steven J. Rosen, who spent 23 years at AIPAC.
Until ELNET, France’s pro-Israel crowd had no structured way to press its case, said Hochberg, a longtime AIPAC supporter in Los Angeles and Chicago.
But France’s election laws are actually more liberal than America’s. Campaigns don’t have to make donors’ names public, political donations are tax deductible, and legal donor levels are higher.
“The climate was OK for it, but the history wasn’t,” Hochberg told me.
U.S. laws prohibit nonprofits like ELNET from raising money here to finance foreign elections. So. ELNET’s American supporters contribute $500,000 annually to fund education efforts in Europe, while European contributors match that to fund the group’s organizational efforts. Hochberg estimates that individual, pro-Israel donations to candidates in France amount to between $1 million and $2 million. In a country with far shorter election cycles and spending caps, that can make a difference.
“In their world, it’s a lot. In our world, it’s peanuts,” Hochberg said.
ELNET also operates in Germany, where it has mobilized support and advocacy within a large pro-Israel Christian community.
In France, home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, ELNET has been particularly active — and focused. It doesn’t advocate on domestic issues like kosher slaughter or circumcision laws, or on other Jewish issues, like anti-Semitism. It focuses on Israel — making the case that to support Israel is in France’s best interest.
Pro-Israel donors, Hochman estimates, gave a third of the money to help Hollande in his primary win against Martine Aubry.
Did ELNET advocacy convince Hollande to do something the French might not ordinarily have done? A source unrelated to ELNET told me the group has had a measured, increasing influence, though perhaps not definitive.
France, after all, has its own reasons to avoid the possibility of a nuclear Iran. It does not want to see a nuclear arms race break out in the Middle East, and it is as worried as any Western country that Iranian nukes could somehow be used against Western interests.
“I don’t want to go too far,” Hochberg said. “But this wouldn’t have happened if the relationships hadn’t have been there.”
He may be right: When Hollande visited Israel earlier this month, a man named Arié Bensemhoun was at his side. Bensemhoun is the executive director of ELNET in France.
“It also shows that Europe is not lost, as some pessimists say,” Eliaz wrote.
I’m certain ELNET’s success will outrage anti-Israel conspiracists and other kooks. ELNET itself treads lightly, careful to point out that its support is not just "Jewish," but from people of all backgrounds who are pro-Israel.
But with Chanukah just past, my answer to those who resent the legal, justified use of soft power is: Tough.
For centuries, “Jewish power” was as much an oxymoron as “Mormon schnapps.” We went a long stretch between the Maccabees and the State of Israel, and it proved disastrous. Power corrupts, but powerlessness kills.
Sure, now that we finally have these means of exercising hard and soft power, we have to be careful and self-reflective. But the one thing we don’t have to be is sorry.
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