Visiting French President Jacques Chirac flew into a rage today at Israeli security forces escorting him on foot through Old Jerusalem, adding a flash of rancor to a Middle East tour that was controversial long before he left Paris.

"This is a provocation. It must stop," Chirac yelled at Israeli bodyguards who flanked him as he waded through crowds in the predominantly Arab Old City this morning. Reports from the scene said he had been prevented from greeting well-wishers and merchants on the street, and from talking to French journalists accompanying him.

"Do you want me to go back to my plane and go back to France?" Chirac cried at one point, gesturing indignantly at the security detail and elbowing them out of the way, according to video footage broadcast here.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu apologized to Chirac after they met over lunch. Netanyahu said the incident had been the consequence of "good intentions" -- protecting Chirac -- and said he had to put up with the same burden himself.

Chirac, on the second stop of a trip to reassert a French and European role in the Middle East peace process, declared the incident closed shortly afterward. But French diplomats here echoed his earlier statements that the security precautions were a deliberate provocation, a physical reminder to Arabs in East Jerusalem that Israel still considers the sector its territory.

Chirac's threat to leave town might have tempted Israeli officials. Like the United States, they regard his effort to inject France and Europe into the Middle East peace negotiations as meddlesome and out of bounds -- and intolerable were Israel's friends not in such short supply.

In a decidedly activist foreign policy since taking office last year, Chirac has sought to project a French, and more generally a European, sphere of influence in the region.

He insisted today that "Europe cannot be content to be the chief provider of funds and the leading trading partner of the Middle East" without a larger political role in the peace process -- "cosponsorship," as Chirac calls it.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said in an ill-concealed dismissal that Europeans have a useful role to play "on the sidelines . . . by encouraging the peace process on the economic level."

France has sought to stress its even-handedness as a potential broker, but its markedly more cordial relations with Arab countries across the region, its economic interests in the Middle East, and Chirac's close relations with Arafat have diminished its credibility, at least in Israel and in the United States.

Israel and France jousted over details of Chirac's itinerary, many apparently calculated to demonstrate French support for the Palestinians.

For example, Israel took offense at Chirac's plan to address the elected Palestinian Council but not Israel's parliament -- he later adjusted his schedule to include a stop at the Israeli Knesset -- and the brevity of his intended visit to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, which Chirac then extended from five minutes to 15.

One Israeli official, speaking anonymously, said, "On the one hand France would like to be a mediator and a facilitator. On the other hand it takes a strong Arab position."

At a speech at Technion University in Haifa today, Chirac said that "only a recognized Palestinian state" -- which Netanyahu has vowed to prevent -- could "provide Israel with a true partner." He also urged a major concession Netanyahu has ruled out: return to Syria of the Golan Heights, held by Israel since its capture in 1967. A French diplomatic source, speaking anonymously, shrugged off Chirac's chilly reception. "When there's more trouble in the Palestinian territories, {the United States and Israel} will need us. It won't be a question of being invited to participate," he said. Arab leaders, however, have shown little interest in using the French as interlocutors.

Chirac's trip took him first to Damascus, Syria, where he received a tumultuous welcome. Next he goes to the Palestinian territories to meet with Arafat, and from there to Amman, Beirut and Cairo.

His aggressive foray into Middle East politics, challenging the role the United States regards as its exclusive responsibility, marks the second time this month that France has confronted the United States over global zones of influence.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Warren Christopher traversed the African continent -- where France once had huge colonial sway -- to promote a pan-African military force made up of Africans but largely supplied by the United States. A French cabinet minister condemned that African initiative as motivated by U.S. presidential politics; the French Foreign Ministry did not dispute his analysis.

To press his case in the Middle East, Chirac has wrapped his efforts in the mantle of the European Union, which softens the purely French ambitions behind it. But most European governments, notably Britain and Germany, do not wish to challenge the United States in this area. Correspondent Barton Gellman in Jerusalem contributed to this report. CAPTION: French President Chirac, right, pushes away an Israeli security officer as Chirac attempts to talk to Palestinian officials in Jerusalem's Old City.