France-Israël. Lobby or not lobby ? (3)

Elnet.Visit Israel, its Settlements, its Surveillance Technologies...

Investigation · Elnet is an European network with branches in Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, and Warsaw. Its goal is to strengthen ties between France and Israel by targeting leaders, businessmen and elected officials. A discreet and well-funded structure, its activities consist in selling Israel like a product, its start-ups, and its colonial settlements on the French scene by creating and maintaining a meshwork of pro-Israeli decision makers.

Israel, June 2019. French Imam Hassen Chalghoumi poses next to President Reuven Rivlin with the delegation of young French and Belgian Muslims whose trip was organised by Elnet France (in the 2nd row, 2nd from left, its director Arié Bensemhoun)

An organisation with a very neutral name embodies the pro-Israel lobby in continental France: Elnet, i.e., the European Leadership Network which makes no effort to hide its objective: “Strengthening bilateral relations between Israel and France.”

With offices in Paris, Brussels, London, Berlin, Madrid, and Warsaw, Elnet has a strongly European identity and also has an association, the Friends of Elnet, based in New York and Los Angeles in charge of fundraising in the USA. An online charity event on 15 November in order to “strengthen Euro-Israeli ties” and collect money to this end brought together pro-Israel philanthropists around current President of Israel Reuven Rivlin, Foreign Minister Gab Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid, former “centre-left” minister who sees himself as the leader of the opposition. He is also the only Israeli politician with whom President Macron likes to be seen. A former journalist and author of detective novels, Lapid received a warm welcome from the President at the Elysée in April 2019 just before the umpteenth electoral round in Israel.

Among the luminaries pampered by Elnet is Bruno Tertrais, eminent representative of privately financed research in France. Deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research and associate senior fellow the Institut Montaigne, a specialist in matters of defence, formerly with NATO and the Rand Corporation, Tertrais was once a member of the French Socialist Party and the think-tank Terra Nova before advising Emmanuel Macron on these “strategic” issues during his campaign for president. To put it in colloquial terms, he is no spring chicken.

During a web seminar in June 2020, Tertrais “paid tribute to Elnet who enabled me to understand all the aspects of Israeli society.” A contributor to L’Express, collaborating regularly with other printed and audio-visual media, is it not strange that he should need a lobby, which makes no mystery of its activity, to get an idea of Israeli society?

Change France’s positions

Little known among the general public, Elnet actually cares truly little for the realities of a divided society where, in spite of the sanitary crisis, thousands demonstrate each week against the policies of the corrupt Netanyahu. The organisation is more interested in the “strategic relationship,” in the anti-Iranian offensive, and the struggle against the Boycott-Disinvestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign, as well as providing support for the colonies. All of which are, of course, at the heart of the actions of the Israeli Prime Minister.

To quote its French director, Arie Bensemhoun, there is nothing ambiguous about the role of his association, “Even though, technically, Elnet is not a lobby and we have nothing to sell.” Except for the policies of the Israeli government. Elnet France, he explained to me, “wants to kick over the table concerning France’s positions on the so-called Israel-Palestine conflict. This is no longer 1967 and even Oslo is now long past. We have to consider the balance of power on the ground, the evolutions of the Arab world, and the Trump plan, because it is a new element and a point of departure.”

Arie Bensemhoun wants France “to change its rhetoric.” He demands a new position from our country, one that is “perfectly clear and starts with the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Indeed, Bensemhoun is perfectly clear, far more so than those dozens of experts, intellectuals, elected officials whom he invites all-expenses-paid to Israel and who then dish out to their readers, students, or constituents’ voters well-rehearsed talking points, like the deputy Aurore Bergé and her confederates in the National Assembly Sylvain Maillard and Meyer Habib, Bruno Tertrais, sociologist Gérard Rabinovitch and plenty of others. “In matters of foreign policy” Arie Bensemhoun specifies, there are no friendships, only relationships. The political relationship between France and Israel is not a love affair, it is balanced, positive relationship involving much cooperation: scientific research, innovation, entrepreneurship and intelligence exchanges and relations concerning strategic and military issues and the fight against terrorism.”

Elnet France is active in all these areas. As Jean-David Benichou, a high-tech industrialist, and a member of its board of directors, has written, “we must get rid the atmosphere of reciprocal distrust and establish one of mutual confidence, assist elected officials in their decision-making and create a context conducive to dialogue”. “Elnet is an association under French law, non-governmental and non-communitarian, officially registered as an association, we are a think- tank and a do tank,” says Arie Bensemhoun. “We organise missions, delegations and colloquiums. We receive private donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals. Elnet receives no public funds.”

Of course, when it comes to lobbying, Israel’s priority lies with the United States, its chief armaments purveyor, and also the European Union (EU), though to a lesser extent. Indeed, Israel has a stake in many European organisations, some well-known to the general public such as Eurovision and its famous song competition or the European Football Championship.

But above all, Israel is involved in many European programmes which benefit its corporations such as the huge project of securitisation of European pipelines, which includes Elbit Systems, one of the main Israeli defence groups. Security issues are so important for Israel that its co-operations with Europe are essential to it. In fact, Israel enjoys a status of quasi-member of the UE, which is the case for none of its other partners. And in fact, the Elnet office in Brussels covers NATO as well and, according to one observer “performs classical tasks of lobbying on behalf of its country. For a while, in fact, I’d thought it was a government agency.”

“Strategic debriefs” in Paris

Nonetheless, France, being a world power with a seat on the Security Council and incidentally third-ranking arms exporter worldwide, remains an interesting target for Elnet. “The voice of France matters in the world,” opines an Israeli diplomat stationed in Paris. In his view, “Elmet is a movement that focuses on the way Israel is perceived, but it doesn’t matter what certain organisations may do, there is only one mouthpiece for Israel in France, it is our embassy. Elnet is not a branch of the embassy.”

Not structurally indeed, but Elnet is first a wingman for Israel in France, and the embassy is not about to complain about that. When Brigadier General Ronen Manelis, spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces, visited Panis in July 2018, Elnet was on tap to organise “strategic debriefs” with carefully selected partners. He was even auditioned in uniform,—which he considered “historical” and “exceptional,” understandably so—by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly on 13 July 2020. “We try to influence consciences,” the uniformed general explained, “as part of the battle we are waging against our enemy.”

Speaking to the MPs, Ronen Manelis claimed that his army’s mission is “to fight the forces of darkness shoulder to shoulder with the nations of the free world” and to wage war against the terrorist organisations and Hamas which is “inconceivably cruel”. However, the woman who chaired the committee, Marielle de Sarnez—she passed away on 13 January 2021—called the General’s attention to the fact that “Gaza is an open-air prison, you cannot and must not shirk your share of responsibility for what is going on there”. Alain David, a Socialist MP alluded to the Israeli army’s response to the Friday protest marches in the spring of 2018: “You handled a policing operation as though it were a war operation, we condemn that massacre”. Other M.Ps. made similar statements, with the exception of Mayer Habib, the Franco-Israeli MP from the 8th electoral district of French citizens living abroad delivered his usual diatribe on “anti- Semitic violence [which] is primarily fuelled by the hatred of Israel. Politicians and the media focus on Israel”. General Manelis was delighted with his hearing, thanked the Assembly f or “the great honour” he had been given. An Israeli general in uniform before the Parliament of the French Republic which has officially condemned the repression in Gaza is not a banal occurrence, and I’m not sure it was to the credit of France.

Wonderful tours in Israel

Elnet brings influential Israelis to Paris but the main focus of its mission is sending French visitors to Israel. “Many people go to Israel, and Elnet plays its part, sending elected officials, businessmen and regional and local delegations. By actually going there and understanding the complexities modifies perceptions. Since France has had to deal with the rise of Islamist radicalism and terrorism, France has become less condescending, less paternalist”, Arie Bensemhoun rejoices. Others deplore the multiplication of these “discovery” trips in recent years. “The Israelis always try to take people to the Golan and the colonies,” a former French ambassador observes. “Why not? Yet all the international agreements we have signed are in contradiction with this. Have French policies changed? To this day, France has not declared, ’we approve of the colonies’”.

Thus 37 deputies of various persuasions took “what was generally regarded as a wonderful tour of Israel in 2018” as Bruno Joncour, deputy from Saint Brieux in Brittany ironically described it. Needless to say, it was a trip organised by Elnet, and this tour involved the largest delegation of French MPs since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. They visited the controversial City of David at Siwan, in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem which France officially considers “occupied”, met Benyamin Netanyahu, dined with the then Minister of Justice Amir Ohana, a former official of the Shin Bet security agency, a member of the right-wing Likud and now Minister of Public Security since May 2020.1

“They pulled out all the stops”, Bruno Jancour continues.” It’s part of the Israeli government’s strategy, its efforts to improve its image regarding policies that leave much to be desired.” “French MPs have always been much courted by the Israeli embassy in France, but for the last twenty years, the pressure exerted by pro-Israel organisations has been much stronger”, says Gwendal Rouillard, an MP from Lorient. “The journeys to Israel have a considerable impact, all the more so as they are slanted. I felt that pressure during Holland’s term of office and under the current presidency. But if Elnet invites me, I won’t go, I know that lobby’s role and I have no wish to get involved.”

Iman Hassen Chalghoumi went to Israel in June 2019 with forty young French Muslims, the trip was organised and financed by Elnet. Moreover, the same imam met with General Manelis a year earlier during the latter’s visit to Paris. Elnet is not short on resources or ideas.

Down with the champions of Palestinian rights

Such is not always the case with France. Several months after General Manelis’ official visit, the Republic awarded its “Prix des droits de l’homme”2 created in 1988, to two organisations for the defence of human rights active in the occupied Palestinian territories: the Israeli B’Tselem and the Palestinian Al-Haq. The Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet was to present the award in the Place Vendome premisses of the Ministry of Justice to the heads of the two associations, Hagai El-Ad and Shawan Jaharin who travelled to Paris for the event. But the Israeli ambassador, the MP Meyer Habib, the Conseil représentatif des organisations juives de France (CRIF) launched a campaign against the award in insulting terms, very much in line with the rhetoric of an Israeli minister of the time, furious to see France awarding a prize to two organisations which “accuse Israel of Apartheid, discredit us internationally, defend terrorism and support BDS”. The CRIF also posted on its website “talking points” aimed at the two NGOs, developed by NGO Monitor, an Israeli “anti-NGO” website whose task it is to monitor and denounce the activities of humanitarian organisations in Palestine and Israel, especially B’Tselem and Al-Haq which, it claims, “generate serious distortions.”

We were some hundred guests waiting in the Ministry lounges for Belloubet to give her speech in the name of the Republic, honouring B’Tselem and Al-Haq. The clock was ticking, we were getting restless. But the Minister simply cut and run, pretending an urgent meeting had come up. We felt ashamed. A general could sport his uniform in front of the Assembly, but two heads of human rights organisations were given no consideration whatsoever. Hagai El-Ad, one of Netanyahu’s favourite bêtes noires was disappointed but not surprised. A few weeks earlier, having spoken before the UN Security Council, he’d been reviled by the Israeli right for his forthright avoidance of official cant: “So, to Prime Minister Netanyahu I say this: you will never silence us—nor the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who reject a present founded on supremacy and oppression, and stand for a future built on equality, freedom and human rights. I am not a traitor, nor am I a hero. The heroes are the Palestinians who endure this occupation with courage and perseverance; who wake up in the middle of the night to find soldiers barging into their homes; who know that if a loved one is killed; impunity is all but guaranteed to the perpetrators; who stay on their land knowing that it is only a matter of time before the bulldozers arrive.”

In this affair, MP Meyer Habib, Israeli ambassadress Aliza Bin-Noun and the chairman of the CRIF, Francis Kalifat, adhered strictly to the same line in their press releases, public statements and tweets. A line laid down in Jerusalem by the Minister of Strategic Affairs, posted online by NGO Monitor and celebrated day after day by Elnet in Paris: nothing must be allowed to pass. We may honour an Israeli general in Paris but not the champions of human rights in Israel and Palestine. A great victory and a significant one for the lobby.

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Ohana is mainly known in Israel as the first openly gay right-wing member of the Knesset.

2TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: France still refuses to abandon the universalising pretension of the word “homme”.