Israel Pulse

Can Europe-Netanyahu gap be bridged?

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Article Summary
Visiting Paris and Brussels, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was confronted with objections to President Donald Trump's Jerusalem proclamation, but he also heard that Europe won't initiate a peace plan of its own.

BRUSSELS Heavy snow in Brussels the evening of Dec. 11 delayed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's flight back to Israel. So while waiting for Belgian authorities to clear the snow, Netanyahu briefed journalists on his exchanges with the European Union foreign ministers earlier that day. “I told them to stop pampering the Palestinians,” said Netanyahu, adding that he urged the ministers to engage in a new discourse on the region.

Netanyahu's two-day trip to Europe was planned several weeks ago, when Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri fled his country to Saudi Arabia, announcing his resignation. It was Netanyahu's entourage who persuaded Lithuania to invite him to the European foreign ministers' monthly council meeting in Brussels, behind the back of other European leaders. Netanyahu's people reminded Israel-friendly Lithuania that no Israeli prime minister had visited the European institutions in the past 22 years and that regional developments in Lebanon, and also in Syria, call for such a meeting.

Once the European invitation was launched, Netanyahu's associates reached out to French President Emmanuel Macron’s people. With Macron personally engaged in the Lebanese crisis, it seemed logical for Netanyahu to come over to Paris and exchange viewpoints on regional developments. The two leaders had discussed the issue of Lebanon over the phone in November and agreed to meet face-to-face for further discussions. Netanyahu intended not only to confer about Lebanon, but also, perhaps foremost, to raise again Israeli concerns over the Iranian military presence in Syria.

But President Donald Trump's Jerusalem proclamation on Dec. 6 shuffled the cards. And while Iran, Syria and Lebanon were indeed deliberated during this trip, the main focus became Jerusalem and the future of Trump's Mideast initiative. Shortly after the declaration, EU's High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Affairs Federica Mogherini stated, “The European Union expresses serious concern about today’s announcement by the United States President Trump on Jerusalem and the repercussions this may have on the prospect of peace.” President Macron chose a somewhat lighter formula, saying that Trump's decision was “regrettable.”

From Netanyahu's point of view, Trump's proclamation only boosted his own diplomatic stance, and the trip that was planned well in advance became a golden opportunity for him to charge forward. He estimated that European rage over the proclamation exposed Europe's fragility, as Brussels can do little but sit and wait for the Americans to finish their move, present their initiative to the sides and see what happens. And even if Trump decides at the end to delay the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has been made loud and clear for the whole world to take note.

And so, instead of Lebanon and Iran, Netanyahu formulated a new objective: to make sure that Europe stays at its place while he and Trump call the shots.

This does not mean that Netanyahu dismisses European leadership. A source at the Elysee Palace told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the discussion between Netanyahu and Macron was “very frank.” Macron told Netanyahu bluntly that without freezing settlement expansion, no peace process could be advanced and that the two-state solution is the only viable solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A senior diplomatic source said that contrary to their July meeting, where Netanyahu mostly talked and Macron listened, this time it was mostly Macron doing the talking. Macron spoke about Trump's initiative and about Jerusalem, but also expressed at length his take on the region at large, France's intentions to put forward in the near future concrete proposals on Syria, its determination to implement fully the nuclear deal with Iran and more. The source also explained that Macron acts differently than French presidents before him; it's not a question of ideology for him. He will only act wherever he feels he can bring a significant change. This was why France engaged in the Qatar-Saudi crisis, and this was why Macron visited Riyadh in November in the midst of the Lebanon crisis. Macron estimates that, for the moment, a French initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would achieve nothing.

Netanyahu mostly listened. Of course, he rejected out of hand European objections on Jerusalem, but he welcomed Macron's assurances concerning Trump's initiative. In the joint press conference held after the meeting, Macron said there will be no “multiplying of initiatives.” Macron explained that the only proposal on the table now is the American one, and that Europe will support the Trump administration in its efforts to advance talks.

Mogherini repeated the same thing, saying on Dec. 12 after her meeting with Netanyahu, “I can say very clearly that there is no initiative, no peace initiative, no attempt to restart peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians that can happen without an engagement from the United States.”

And so, Netanyahu comes home to Jerusalem content. The Europeans are furious about Trump's Jerusalem proclamation, but they won't stand in the way of his initiative, nor will they take any punitive steps against Israel in the short term. Most importantly, Europe won't surprise Israel with a Paris 3 conference (as former French President Francois Hollande did with the Paris 1 and Paris 2 conferences) or another initiative of the sort.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner called Mogherini last week, asking to deliberate with European leadership in order to engage it in the president's initiative. A European diplomat in Brussels told Al-Monitor that the telephone conversation was a positive sign that the Americans want the Europeans on board. But he also said that, as usual, the Americans would like the Europeans to convince the Palestinians to agree to their plans. They would like Europe to do the dirty part of the job.

Rina Bassist is an Israeli journalist and works on the Israel Pulse editorial team for Al-Monitor. She has been serving for many years as international correspondent for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, having been stationed in Paris, Brussels, New Orleans and Pretoria. She also contributes to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Jerusalem Post and Ynet. Prior to her journalistic career, she served as an Israeli diplomat at the post of deputy ambassador in Bogotá.

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