France, not US, offers to involve Israel in talks with Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not react publicly to the statement by French President Emmanuel Macron over the need to involve Israel and Saudi Arabia in talks with Iran.

al-monitor French President Emmanuel Macron reacts after a German-French Security Council video conference with the German chancellor, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, Feb. 5, 2021. Photo by Thibault Camus/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Feb 10, 2021

US President Joe Biden delivered his first foreign policy speech Feb. 4. His address worried Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for two reasons. The first was what Biden said, and the second was what Biden did not say.

Biden repeated in his speech the need for America to repair its alliances and engage again with the world. In an apparent reference to Europe, Biden said, "We must meet the new moment accelerating global challenges — from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation — challenging the will only to be solved by nations working together and in common. We can’t do it alone. … America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again."

Biden also named world leaders and friends of America he had already spoken with since taking office, including the leaders of Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Israel was not on that list. As of Feb. 10, Netanyahu is still waiting for a phone call from the White House. Clearly, for the new Biden administration, its principal interlocutors and allies for the coming years would be the Europeans, not Israel.

Another demonstration of the Biden administration rehabilitating American strategic alliance with Europe came on Feb. 5. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a virtual conference with his British, French and German counterparts. The three European ministers welcomed America’s return to center stage in world affairs. The last time top foreign affairs officials from these four countries met was in April 2018. Blinken’s Feb. 5 message was clear: Multilateralism is back. Netanyahu has been dreading that change of policy ever since former President Donald Trump lost the November elections. Israel’s prime minister knows he has few other world leaders to turn to.

This is especially pertinent regarding the six world powers that had negotiated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Biden is now the driving force behind a possible revival of the nuclear deal, so Netanyahu cannot count on him. Over the years, Netanyahu had nurtured a special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but few in Jerusalem believe that Putin will save Israel from the agreement. On Feb. 8, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, about Iran. He tweeted later, "Russia has an important role in the Middle East, particularly in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons as well as its entrenchment in the region." Still, it is safe to assume that Lavrov made no promises to Ashkenazi. The same could be said about China. As for Europe — the United Kingdom included for that matter — it is not an alternative Netanyahu can rely on, and he has only himself to blame for that.

Eight years ago, before entering formal negotiations with Tehran, when talks were still informal, Paris featured strict positions vis-a-vis the Iranian nuclear program. In a 2013 visit in Israel, then-French President Francois Hollande pledged that France will not give in on the nuclear file, and warned against a threat to world peace and security. He told Netanyahu that he was a true friend of Israel.

Netanyahu praised Hollande for his position on Iran, but failed to follow up on this and did not establish close relations with the French leader. Israeli diplomats did their best to engage their French counterparts against the Iranian nuclear program, but they had little backing from the prime minister’s office, where Hollande was not trusted. In 2015, it was already too late. Israel was left outside of the formal P5+1 talks, and had little to no influence on the final agreement.

Jerusalem’s ties with Paris under President Emmanuel Macron have been cool. The French president distanced himself from the Israel-Palestinian file, leaving this geopolitical arena to the Trump administration. Instead, he focused on Lebanon, the Gulf states and Iran. This suited Israel just fine. No one in Jerusalem was interested in a remake of the Paris peace conferences on the Middle East, and neither was Macron.

Clearly, the victory of Biden offers the European Union and France in particular a significant tailwind in relaunching dialogue with Iran. Several reports claim that the Europeans have engaged with senior Democratic officials already during the election campaign, to inspect together possibilities for renewing dialogue with Iran.

On Feb. 4, Macron took another step in advancing the reopening of negotiations with Tehran. He offered to mediate talks between the United States and Iran in order to revive the 2015 JCPOA agreement. Addressing the Atlantic Council, Macron said, “We do need to finalize, indeed, a new negotiation with Iran. … I will do whatever I can to support any initiative from the US side to reengage in a demanding dialogue, and I will … try to be an honest broker and a committed broker in this dialogue.”

But nonsentimental Macron said also another thing, which surprised Jerusalem. “We have to find a way to involve in these discussions Saudi Arabia and Israel because they are some of the key partners of the region directly interested by the outcomes with our other friends of the region.” This was in fact what Jerusalem has been trying to get from Washington in the past few weeks — a promise to keep Israel "inside the room" of the negotiations. Ironically, it was the leader of France, not the United States, who put this request on the table. A lesson for Jerusalem about realpolitik, and perhaps even a diplomatic opportunity to be seized.

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