France announced today that President Francois Mitterrand will make a twice-postponed visit to Israel in early March, ending a month of hesitation that left a bad taste in the mouths of French and Israeli diplomats alike.
Mitterrand, who came to office last June declaring himself "a friend of Israel," had intended to make the visit his first official trip to dramatize a shift in French policy, considered pro-Arab under his predecessors. By the time it was put off twice and finally announced today without a definite date, the gesture had become surrounded by doubt and suspicion, demonstrating for Mitterrand's government the difficulty of keeping friends on both sides of the tangled Middle East dispute.
The confusion also highlighted the complicated heritage of Franco-Israeli relations. Paris was a close ally and arms supplier of Israel in the 1950s, particularly during the Algerian war, when their secret services cooperated, and in the 1956 Suez war when their armed forces coordinated in attacks on the Suez Canal and the Sinai.
Since the 1967 Six-Day War, however, France had been an estranged friend, refusing to sell arms to Israel and interested primarily in good relations with the Arab nations that are its main oil suppliers.
Despite Mitterrand's repeatedly declared resolve to return to a middle course, embracing friendship with Israel as well as the Arab world, his plans to travel to Israel seemed to have turned out to be a source of irritation rather than the show of amity he had intended them to be.
First, the trip was called off because Israeli warplanes destroyed Iraq's French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad last June. French diplomatic sources recall that the reactor bombing also helped Mitterrand decide to make his first official trip to Saudi Arabia instead, which he did last September.
The Israeli trip was later rescheduled for Feb. 10-12, only to be called off again last month after Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights captured from Syria in 1967.
Foreign Ministry officials expressed open irritation that the Golan annexation came only the day after Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson paid his own visit to Israel and opened what the Israeli government heralded as "a new era in relations between Paris and Jerusalem."
"You must not forget that several days after Mitterrand's being enthroned as president of the republic, and after he already had started sending messages to Israel saying he would make a visit, they bombed the French reactor at Baghdad," said one ministry official. "Then a few days after Cheysson said a lot of nice words in Jerusalem, they annexed the Golan."
Mitterrand's government strongly condemned the Golan step. But there was no official announcement that the visit again was being postponed. Instead, a news report spoke of a postponement, and the presidential palace described the story only as "premature."
Some Israeli sources here voiced suspicion that the first report reflected pressure tactics by Arab leaders, with whom Mitterrand also has pledged to maintain friendly relations.
Mitterrand's spokesman said the president would decide on the visit in light of the U.N. Security Council debate on sanctions against Israel in New York. Then, just as the debate got under way last week, the report surfaced again, this time on the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, and was repeated as fact on the government television.
Again it was denied as premature. But Israeli sources speculated that it was officially inspired as a gesture to France's Arab friends to balance off a French position at the Security Council that, according to French diplomats here, opposes mandatory sanctions as punishment for the Golan move.
When the Foreign Ministry announced today that Mitterrand would make the visit in March, it still declined to give an exact date or to explain why it was possible finally to decide even though the Security Council debate has not produced a result.