Israel hand seen in Ivorian clash

New allegations that Israeli arms dealers helped the army of Ivory Coast attack a French military base look likely to reignite long-tense relations between Israel and France.

“Israeli mercenaries assisting the Ivory Coast army operated unmanned aircraft that aided the aerial bombing of a French base in the country on Nov.9,” France’s TF-1 television station reported Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, the respected Paris newspaper Le Monde reported that a group of 46 Israeli advisers were running an electronic-surveillance center for the Ivory Coast army, which has turned on French peacekeepers invited in by the government two years ago.

Israel Radio cited an Israeli defense source as denying the reports. The attacks on French bases cost the lives of at least nine French soldiers.

“Israel is unaware of such a thing,” the Jerusalem Post quoted the Israeli Foreign Ministry saying.

Earlier, French troops at Abidjan airport in Ivory Coast, now Cote D’Ivoire, seized an Israeli-built drone, or unmanned-surveillance aircraft. In September, France called on Israel to clarify its role in Ivory Coast.

On Nov. 9, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Director General Amos Yaron promised to stop supplying military equipment to the army in the poor West African nation.

“The decision was made in the light of recent developments in this country and at the request of the French government,” a Defense Ministry statement said. “It will remain in effect until the situation in that country becomes clear.”

The allegations are political dynamite for many reasons. France was so incensed by the deadly Nov.9 air attack on its troops it responded with overwhelming force, wiping out the entire Ivory Coast air force. In retaliation, enraged mobs attacked French troops and citizens in the former French colony and France evacuated more than 5,000 Westerners in the country.

The U.N. Security Council Monday approved an arms embargo on Ivory Coast, a move that was a blow to President Laurent Gbagbo, who had pledged to rebuild the air force. On Wednesday, the African Union called for an urgent meeting of its Peace and Security Council to prevent Ivory Coast from collapsing into full-scale civil war like its West African neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The AU issued a statement that called for “the early convening” of the PSC “to review developments in Ivory Coast and agree on steps to be taken to contribute tot eh restoration of lasting peace and security.”

France has significant economic interests in Ivory Coast as well long-time ties to the country, but in recent months its 2002 intervention there has become a hot potato and President Jacques Chirac might well want to divert popular attention from the casualties that French troops have suffered.

Israel makes some of the most advanced unmanned drone surveillance aircraft in the world and has been a significant arms exporter to sub-Saharan Africa for more than 35 years. But the Israelis are not eager to infuriate the French government or rally the French public around Chirac who has often clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on many issues. France is one of the most powerful nations in the 25-country European Union. It also has the largest Jewish community in Europe and one that has been targeted by Islamist extremists from the country’s Algerian-Muslim community. The last thing French Jews would want is for Israel, and by implication them, to be scapegoats for mainstream French nationalists because of the deaths of French troops in Ivory Coast.

Tensions between Israel and France are based on serious policy differences between the governments but there is much more personal animus to them than between Israel and most other members of the EU. A few years ago at a large dinner, France’s ambassador to Britain was reported as having described Israel as “a shitty little country.” More recently, Sharon enraged the French government and many Frenchmen by calling on French Jews to immigrate to Israel for their own safety. Few took his advice.

The tensions are particularly ironic as no nation did more to help Israel during the first and most dangerous 20 years of its struggle for existence than France. Under both the Fourth and Fifth Republics, Israel received more important weapons for its army and air force from France than from any other country. Israel won the 1967 Six Day War with then state-of-the-art Mirage fighter-bombers supplied by France when neither the United States nor any other European nation would or could supply comparable weapons.

Ivory Coast is the largest cocoa exporting nation in the world and its resources have long made it a magnet for Westerners eager to do business. But Israel is now finding out, as France already has, that the messy complications involved may not be worth it.

Courtesy News Watcher and Liberty Forum