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Sarkozy Tries To Mend Fences Over Israel

French president Nicolas Sarkozy met with leaders of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF to reassure them of his support for Israel.

The meeting comes following reports that Sarkozy called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” during a conversation with President Obama at the G20 conference earlier this month.

Sarkozy “responded to a lot of our concerns,” said Francis Kalifat, CRIF treasurer, who attended the intimate lunch that also included CRIF President Richard Prasquier, and France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, among others.

Those concerns include Israel’s security, France’s recent vote in favor of Palestinian UNESCO membership, and also reports of a private conversation between Sarkozy and Barack Obama, in which journalists overheard Sarkozy calling Netanyahu a “liar.”

“The President reaffirmed his friendship and support for the state of Israel from the very beginning of our conversation. He wanted to remind us that throughout his political career, he has had a profound attachment to Israel,” said Kalifat. Sarkozy also spoke of his “strong, long relationship and friendship with Netanyahu and his family,” and “expressed his firm desire to move beyond the misunderstanding following an off-record conversation.”

Kalifat said Sarkozy gave the group “certain explanations,” for the recent conversation with Obama, in which both leaders didn’t realize they were speaking into microphones that were turned on, allowing several journalists to hear three minutes of the conversation in an adjoining room. But Sarkozy asked that the group do not repeat that explanation. Sarkozy has said his words were taken out of context.

“We told him about our questions and preoccupations, notably concerning France’s UNESCO vote, and we talked about the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership,” said Kalifat, who explained that French Jews were especially worried about the status of Jewish cultural sites on Palestinian territory, which they hope will remain accessible, and “not transformed into mosques.”

The French president, “said in a firm manner, that there was no question France would accept that kind of thing,” said Kalifat. “They would do everything to block any downplaying of the Jewish presence and characteristic” of cultural sites, such as Rachel’s tomb.

Concerning a Palestinian bid for U.N. membership, Sarkozy said France would only support the idea of a “non-member observer state” status for the territories, but under strict conditions that included Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a return to bilateral negotiations without preconditions, recognition of Israel’s security requirements, and a promise not to submit lawsuits against Israel in international courts.

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