Will consulate employee’s gun smuggling impact Israel-France relations?

Analysts weigh in on whether the Shin Bet’s arrest of a French consulate worker for his role in a Palestinian arms smuggling cell will affect Israel-France relations.

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

The Shin Bet security services arrest of a French consular driver with diplomatic privileges was a major embarrassment for France, but it will not cause it a diplomatic problem with Israel. Analysts closely watching developments say that early signs point toward Israel’s determination to put Roman Franck on trial because he lacks diplomatic immunity.

The Shin Bet says that the suspect “cynically exploited” his diplomatic privileges by smuggling more than 70 weapons from Gaza to Judea and Samaria. The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Monday termed the allegations “very serious” but insisted that the incident would not compromise diplomatic ties between the two countries.

International law expert Ambassador Alan Baker told World Israel News (WIN), “If he was a diplomat he would have full immunity. But as a consular staff member, who allegedly carried out a crime that was not connected to his work, he can be put on trial and imprisoned. The French might prefer to have him deported to France where he could be tried, but they have no legal standing in this case.”

Working out of the French Consulate in Jerusalem, Franck, in his mid-twenties, is accused of using a car with diplomatic plates to avoid detection. Cars with a diplomatic registration face reduced security checks at IDF road blocks. According to the Shin Bet, Frank made five smuggling runs, and delivered two assault rifles and 70 pistols that he received from an employee of the French Cultural Center in Gaza, selling the weapons to arms dealers in Judea and Samaria. Israeli security officials say that Franck was motivated by financial gain and the French consulate was not unaware of his activities. So far, nine people have been arrested in the case and only Franck is a foreign national.

Details of the case were under a gag order until Monday, only days before French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was set to visit Israel. Palestinian affairs expert Yoni Ben Menachem told WIN, “This is very unusual and in all my years I don’t remember an employee of a friendly nation being involved in something like this. I think he was caught because the Shin Bet has a great network of intelligence in the territories and someone probably ratted him out. In the past we had a similar case with a Turkish national, but charges were not as serious and he was deported.”

The Foreign Ministry thanked French authorities for cooperating with the investigation, which the Shin Bet described as “a very grave incident in which the immunity and privileges granted to foreign missions in Israel was cynically exploited for smuggling that could have been used in attacks on civilians and security forces.”

Former Israeli ambassador to France Avi Pazner told WIN, “This is a very serious breach and he will certainly be put on trial. There are precedents for this. I don’t think the French embassy will defend him in any way. This will not impact relations with France because it is quite clear to all that this did not involve the French government but was the work of an individual.”

Ben Menachem told WIN, “The security services of Israel and France work very closely together, and neither side would want this incident to muddle relations.”

A spokesman for the French embassy in Israel said on Sunday, “We take this case very seriously and are in close contact with the Israeli authorities.”

The embassy also said that Franck “has benefited and continues to enjoy consular protection.” Le Monde newspaper reported that France will not seek to block prosecution, but could move to have Franck serve a potential prison sentence in France rather than Israel.