French President Francois Mitterrand, celebrating an end to Franco-Israeli animosity that dates from the era of Charles de Gaulle, began a two-day state visit to Israel today with a call for a renewed search for peace and a pledge to maintain an "irreversible" relationship with the Jewish state.
At rain-swept Ben-Gurion Airport Mitterrand was greeted with full state honors by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Yitzhak Navon, the entire Israeli Cabinet and many members of parliament. The 21-gun ceremony reflected Israel's delight at an opportunity for rapprochement with the European Community at a time of Israel's increasing isolation that stems from unpopular political decisions.
Mitterrand is the first French president, and the first European head of state, to visit Israel since its founding 33 years ago.
He wasted little time in indicating he intends to redress an imbalance, saying at the airport, "Our relationship exists and is irreversible . . . ; rest assured, Mr. President, we remain your friends."
From the airport, Mitterrand was driven to the capital for the traditional welcoming ceremony of taking bread and salt--Gallicized this time by the introduction of wine--and a series of meetings with Israeli leaders.
The moment was high in symbolism, given the strain in French-Israeli relations during the past 14 years, which reached a low point in 1980, when Mitterrand's predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, sponsored an independent European peace initiative that Israel regarded as a transparent attempt to promote French interests in the Arab world.
But Israeli officials also see in the visit the potential for tangible benefits from the resumption of bilateral relations, which a senior Foreign Ministry official said, "haven't really existed, in the sense of a real dialogue with the French leadership, since 1967."
After a ceremonial meeting with Navon at the president's house, Mitterrand held the first of a series of working sessions with Begin, who, still recuperating from a broken thigh, greeted the French leader at the airport sitting in a wheelchair.
Uri Porat, Begin's press secretary, said the conversation between Begin and Mitterrand was dominated by the Palestinian issue and the future of the proposed autonomy for West Bank and Gaza Strip inhabitants. The two leaders also discussed at length Israel's security needs.
While the two leaders met, French Minister for External Affirs Claude Cheysson and Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir also held talks.
The Israelis are expected to raise the issue of French assistance in developing nuclear energy and the possible renewal of French military sales to Israel, which were suspended in 1967 following the Six-Day War. The defense ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet within the next few months.
Israeli sources said talks also will be held on an increase in trade, which now totals only about $250 million a year on each side; joint research and development projects; exchange programs for education, culture, sports and youth and a reactivation of the joint ministerial economic committee.
Israel will also seek help with its trading problems with the European Community, seeking better deals for its exports as a result of the enhanced prestige it hopes to attain from the visit and will attempt to secure Mitterrand's help in fostering a less hostile attitude toward Israel by the new Socialist government in Greece. Israeli officials said.