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Mitterrand walks into Israel on a tightrope

When French President Francois Mitterrand arrives in Israel March 3 for his two-day visit, he will be walking a diplomatic tightrope.

Both Israeli and French diplomats here are calling the visit, the first by a French President to the Jewish state, a positive ''turning point'' in Franco-Israeli relations. It will go a long way, both sides say, promoting the French government's new even-handed policy in the Middle East, redressing the country's marked pro-Arab tilt since 1967.

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But this attempt to stake out a more even-handed French Mideast policy is proving to be a tricky balancing act. In preparing for his trip, Mr. Mitterrand has upset the Arabs as well as the Israelis, and even caused tension within his own government.

In interviews last week, the Mr. Mitterrand stressed his sympathy for Israel -- and the Palestinians. He insisted that there must be a Palestinian state and that Israel must negotiate the creation of that state with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). That prompted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to respond, ''France should mind its own business.''

Still, neither these pro-Palestinian statements nor tours of the Arab world last week by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy and Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson have mollified Arab anxiety over Mitterrand's trip.

PLO chief Yasser Arafat used his meeting in Beirut with Mr. Cheysson to tell him the Mitterrand trip would lead ''to a great prejudice in relations between France and the Arab countries.'' And March 1 Syrian President Hafez Assad weighed in with angry public comment sayin: ''We do not think this visit conforms to the role of France.''

In addition, there is tension within the French government itself over the trip. While the Socialist Party has always admired Israel as the epitome of a socialist country, many Socialists have been angered by recent Israeli actions: notably the June 7 bombing of the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad, Iraq, and the near-annexation of the Golan Heights last December. Each action forced Mr. Mitterrand to postpone a planned trip to Israel, first in July then in February.

Now that the visit is finally on, many officials at the Quai d'Orsay, the French Ministry of External Relations, reportedly remain skeptical. According to press reports and Israeli diplomats here, Quai d'Orsay officials fear an erosion in France's significant economic and political interests in the Arab countries. France depends on the Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, for most of its oil, large arms sales, and high technology contracts.

None of this, though, has moved President Mitterrand from his determination to improve Franco-Israeli relations, which have been in a deep-freeze since President Charles de Gaulle decreed an arms boycott against Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

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Since taking office, Mr. Mitterrand has taken several steps to readjust this policy. He has abolished a 1977 decree that supported the Arab economic boycott of Israel. More importantly, he has criticized the previous European initiative on the Middle East as undermining the Camp David accord, thus reversing the previous administration's condemnation of the Camp David pact.

Mr. Mitterrand declares that his conscience dictated this shift, and Israeli and French diplomats here agree. But there are also clear political reasons for improving Franco-Israeli relations.

Domestically, it assuages the 700,000-strong Jewish community, a large majority of whom voted for the Socialists. Also, by traveling to Jerusalem, Mr. Mitterrand seeks to play a peace-making role in the Middle East, promoting his plan for convincing the Israelis to negotiate a deal with the PLO. He hopes to prevent the area from being polarized between the superpowers.

But don't expect any major advances towards peace in the Middle East to result from the Mitterrand trip, diplomats on both sides here say. Nor do they expect any concrete agreements between France and Israel.

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