Relations between France and Israel have soured after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's repeated assertions that the French government's anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli policy are responsible for the upsurge of anti-Semitism that led to the bombing that killed four persons outside the capital's leading Reform Jewish synagogue two weeks ago.
The French government so far has been publicly silent, but Paris officials are not attempting to hide their annoyance over what they say is a deliberate attempt by Begin to take advantage of the public outcry in France about the explosion to neutralize France's pro-Arab tilt.
After Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne called on Prime Minister Raymond Barre Thursday, French and Israeli sources refused to say what was discussed in the brief meeting.
To widespread surprise in the French Jewish community, Begin's view that "there is no difference between anti-Israelism, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism" was endorsed Thursday by the 85-year-old grand rabbi of France, Jacob Kaplan, who has made good relations with French leaders one of the hallmarks of his long career.
Kaplan's statement in the presence of several French government representatives at a memorial ceremony for the victims of the blast at the synagogue in the Rue Copernic seems bound to revive the longstanding debate about whether French Jews can be loyal to both France and Israel. France, with its long history of breaking down regional loyalties in favor of national unity, has been traditionally far less tolerant to special relations between its citizens and foreign countries than a nation of immigrants such as the United States.
The influential newspaper Le Monde, which often reflects official government views on foreign policy issues, attacked the Begin-Kaplan position in a front-page editorial. The paper noted that many Israelis oppose Begin's "extremist" policies, that Zionism is not necessarily identified with the current Israeli government's stands and that Jews who feel comfortable in their native countries cannot be accused of anti-Semitism.
Some prominent French Jews have also publicly rejected the Begin view, notably European Parliament President Simone Veil, a French government supporter known for her independence.Editor Jean Daniel of the weekly Nouvel Observateur, a leading leftist anti-Zionist Jew, noted that in the ultimate logic of the Begin position, any Israeli Jew who opposed his government's expansionism is an anti-Semite.
In the heat of the moment after the bombing, one of the first reactions seemed to be embarrassment in the French left over its anti-Israeli positions. In the wave of demonstrations that followed the blast, there was a striking absence of the checkered Palestinian headdresses widely worn by West European leftist youths as scarves to symbolize anti-Zionism.
When Baron Alain de Rothschild, the titular leader of the French Jewish community, said immediately after the blast that the government's anti-Israeli policies had created the climate for the Rue Copernic blast, it seemed to be accepted as a fair comment from someone who has always operated in the French national context. Rothschild has made a point of not repeating himself.
The French government did not even react when Begin and his ambassador here took that view right after the explosion. When Begin solemnly repeated himself at an Israeli Cabinet meeting and then in parliamentary debate, however, the official eyebrows of France figuratively arched. Officials started speculating that Begin may be trying to use the heated state of French public opinion to counteract the French government's current efforts to organize a Middle East peace initiative by the nine-nation European Community that would recognize both Israel's right to secure and recognized frontiers and the right of the Palestinians to statehood.
There is widespread speculation in French official circles that if the Begin government keeps up its campaign, the government of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing may overcome its reluctance to answer back in a preelectoral period, especially if it seems that it becomes possible to exploit a backlash against Israeli interference in French internal affairs.
An indication of how French opinion may be shifting back in reaction to Begin's words was given by the political newsletter of Georges Broussine, a French Jew and a Gaullist diplomatic analyst often critical of Giscard. At first, he described the spontaneous accusations against Giscard as unjustified but understandable since the government has lost contact with public opinion.
This week, however, Broussine said: "It can be said that the French government's silence is a kind of victory for Mr. Begin. But it is a bitter victory to the extent that it stems from a deliberate confusion between the temporal role of the state of Israel and its spiritual mission. It is true that in Eastern Europe, especially the Soviet Union, that anti-Zionism is a mask for anti-Semitism. But France is not the Soviet Union."