newsIsrael at War

‘We risk a devastating war in Lebanon’

Neither Hezbollah nor Israel want a war, but can only negotiate to avoid one if there's a ceasefire in Gaza, says French Ambassador to Israel Frederic Journes.

Smoke from a large fire caused by rockets fired from Lebanon, in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, June 3, 2024. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Smoke from a large fire caused by rockets fired from Lebanon, in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, June 3, 2024. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.

Note: This interview with France’s ambassador to Israel, Frederic Journes, was conducted a day before Israeli officials publicly debated the question of whether France should participate in a forum together with Israel and the United States to resolve the situation in Lebanon.

Q: Watching the fighting along the northern border between Israel and Hezbollah, what are your thoughts?

A: Well, we view that with much caution and concern, because there is one thing we definitely don’t want, and this is to have a regional war developing in the Middle East right now.

Q: Israeli officials have been complaining behind those doors that the world is not doing enough to deter Hezbollah. Is France doing enough?

A: The story is not about deterrence. The deterrence relationship [is] between Israel and Hezbollah. But we are telling Hezbollah that we believe very seriously that the danger of escalation is real, that Israel is serious, that we risk a devastating war in Lebanon. That’s where we are important, because we do have channels to communicate with them. I am not sure right now that Hezbollah are deterred. Actually, I feel that they are somehow gaining confidence. They’ve been skirmishing with Israel for eight months. They learned about the weak points and they’re using them.

Q: What’s the status of the negotiations these days?

A: Well, what is very interesting is that this is a conflict both sides actually agree they would rather avoid right now. And both sides kind of agree on what should be the core parameters. The big problem is how do you start the negotiation? And here it begins to be complicated because Israel is saying we want to dissociate it from what’s happening in Gaza. And Hezbollah says no way, “We are the axis of resistance and we are not afraid.” So basically, we are missing now the window of opportunity to start the negotiations, and that can only come with a ceasefire. That’s the reality where we are right now. So a deal is possible. If there is a truce, then we get into a path of quickly negotiating an arrangement that would avoid a war. Now, if it goes the wrong way, it is important to think twice. As Churchill says, there is no such thing as a smooth war.

Q: So when Israeli officials tell you they think they can conduct a limited war in Lebanon, what do you say to them?

A: Be careful of miscalculation. There has been a miscalculation already in April about the way Iran would retaliate…. Israel is claiming that Hezbollah is deterred. Is it really? … I feel that they are pretty much confident, and maybe overconfident.

Q: Is there a plan B if the ceasefire in Gaza doesn’t work?

A: There is only plan A. Plan A is to coordinate with our American friends, with Israel, with the Lebanese government, with other players, in order to be ready to be very quick once the window of opportunity is open.

Q: Do you think that Hamas’s negative answer regarding a hostage deal gives Israel the leverage to continue its operation in Gaza?

A: Look, we have said from the beginning that we support the right of Israel to defend itself. We also said from the beginning that it had to take into consideration international humanitarian law, which means the law of war. Right now I don’t think the core parameter, which is the necessity to come to an end of the fighting, is changed by what Hamas has said. It’s necessary to stop because we also believe there needs to be a political component in order to generate an alternative to the Hamas government and right now, continuing the war is doing the opposite. More and more destruction, more and more despair. We’re just preparing the breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists.

Q: So does France support a unilateral Israeli ceasefire?

A: I wouldn’t put it like that, because there are also other countries which [are stakeholders] and things can be decided together. I still believe, actually, to answer your question, that even after what Hamas answered, there is still a room for negotiation. Why? Because the hostages are the life insurance of Hamas and it is in the interest of Hamas to keep them alive in order to be able to trade them.

Q: We saw a report, NBC News reported, that the United States might be thinking of separate negotiations with Hamas to release their citizens. Is it something also that France is considering?

A: I don’t know on that, because the discussion on this issue, it is something that takes place directly in Paris.

Q: In France’s view is Israel committing war crimes in Gaza?

A: I am not a judge, so I don’t have an opinion on that. What I say is that the balance between the exercise of self-defense and the respect of international humanitarian law is a very tricky one and Israel has been in a complicated situation on that field from the beginning when Hamas designed the horrible terror attack of Oct. 7. I was at the Erez Crossing last week and saw the flow of trucks coming in and getting out, unloading food, other commodities. It has to stay so in order to avoid Israel losing its credibility abroad.

Q: What do you mean “losing its credibility”?

A: I will give you an example which makes me very desperate. Right now you have the Jerusalem Film Festival. From all over the world, they’re receiving cancellations. And the movie industry is one of the industries that really love Israel. They’re canceling the distribution of their movies in Israel. Not because they are in the logic of boycott. They’re not. They just don’t want their image to be associated. And that’s very bad news. It will take time to repair that.

Q: Your country also decided to cancel Israeli participation in one of the biggest defense shows in the world?

A: The decision was made a few days after the strike in Rafah, which caused high casualties … with horrible images broadcasted everywhere. We had been saying to our Israeli friends since mid-January it wasn’t possible to carry on a full-scale military operation in Rafa considering the level of concentration of people in that area. And then that happened. We had been telling this to our Israeli friends; we did not convince them. We couldn’t stand aside and do nothing. So we told them … that conditions are not met right now to be exposing you in the show. But it doesn’t mean we want to sever business and intellectual and scientific cooperation with Israel.

Q: So is the next step an arms embargo on Israel?

A: I don’t think so. Because first of all, Israel is not Russia. Second, we’re talking about a decision by the European Union. We have different views in the European Union and different positions regarding Israel, and nobody has put this on the table. No one right now is discussing it in Brussels.

Q: But don’t you think France’s decision to prevent Israel from participating in this show strengthens the voices around the world accusing Israel of carrying out a massacre?

A: Well, you can put the thing in reverse. I’m also afraid that it was the decision to carry out an operation in Rafah, under conditions in which it was not realistically possible to avoid massive casualties, that is creating that movement in the world. So you can see it in reverse. We were reacting here.

Q: Can Jews feel safe today in France?

A: I think they should. I know people are worried, but what I want to share with you is, first, that there is a very strong thing in the French Republic about protecting various minorities, including the Jewish minority. France made a massive effort to protect the places where the community meets—synagogues, Jewish schools, kosher supermarkets. We put on the street more than 13,000 policemen and soldiers to provide security to the Jewish community.

You’ve seen the Blue Magen David being painted on doors of Jewish people in Paris. There’s been a profanation of the Wall of the Righteous in Paris. And then we found out there was Russian influence behind that. So there is a dimension of manipulation, to make people afraid.

Q: What is Russia trying to achieve via these manipulations?

A: To create disorder, to incite hatred, to weaken confidence in the republic and in the democracy of France. They’re doing that everywhere in Europe, unfortunately. It’s their new specialty, and they do it quite well. We have observed how they have been using bots on social media, and that it was manipulated.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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