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Mr Netanyahu in Europe - What Was the Goal of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Visit?

Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow, Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The Israeli Prime Minister visited Berlin, Paris and London from 4 to 6 June 2018. Was it just a routine trip?

In a sense, yes, it was. Mr Netanyahu frequently comes to Europe - this is his third visit to Paris since Mr Macron's election as President. The Israeli Prime Minister is preparing for the upcoming elections. He knows that support for Israel has decreased in European opinion, yet also knows that the umbilical cord tying the old Europe to the Jewish state is far from broken. He must understand that the prolongation of the incidents in the Gaza strip and the steady increase of Palestinian victims - currently more than 120 - since the start of the "Great March of Return" is upsetting even the most loyal to Israel. The Prime Minister's trip was therefore at least as motivated by a public relations goal as by diplomatic considerations, so-to-speak. 

"In all three capitals, Mr Netanyahu was confronted with a common line of support to the JCPOA."

Moreover, the visit received relatively little media coverage. In Paris, images of the joint press conference with the French President and the Prime Minister showed two men politely claiming they had opposite views on all topics (the Iran nuclear deal, the Middle East peace process, Gaza, etc.), yet exchanging slaps in the back, before inaugurating the exhibition celebrating the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation. In London, this anniversary had a special resonance for obvious reasons. More than elsewhere, though to a limited extent, there have been protests in the British capital against the current Israeli government’s attitude towards Palestinians. A meeting was even held in the House of Lords on this issue.

To understand this visit, it must be placed within its geopolitical context. Before leaving Jerusalem, Netanyahu indicated that he intended to discuss two issues with his European counterparts: Iran and Iran. Many commentators understood from this statement that the Israeli Prime Minister intended to convince Mrs Merkel, Mr Macron and Mrs May to support President Trump's position and, in turn, to leave the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, in all three capitals, he was confronted with a common line of support to the JCPOA. The visitor - whether it was initially his intention or whether he adapted to his interlocutors’ reaction - did not in the end ask Berlin, Paris and London to oppose the Iran nuclear deal. He merely explained, according to his own words at the end of his tour, that this agreement was "dead" or "about to die". He justified this claim with economic reasons: European companies are abandoning Iran, and are unwilling to expose themselves to American retaliation or to lose market shares in the United States.

"As opposed to the approach adopted so far, he thinks it is by making peace with the rest of the Arab world that the Israelis could reach peace with the Palestinians."

Mr Netanyahu concentrated his efforts on another field: he told Europeans about Iran's aggressive stance towards the Middle East as a whole, and Israel itself, of course, by highlighting Iran's military and paramilitary presence in Syria. The Iranian threat in the region, according to the Head of the Israeli government, is redesigning the geopolitical map of the Middle East. His intervention on the topic at the end of his tour in front of the British think tank Policy Exchange deserves some attention in this regard.

In his speech, the Prime Minister stated that Israel would not tolerate that Iran maintains military forces, in one form or another, in Syria. Once Daesh is defeated, or about to be defeated, Tehran no longer has any reason to remain in Syria. Mr Netanyahu said that he and President Putin agreed on this point. When the journalist who interviewed him noticed that indeed, "the Russians turn a blind eye" to each Israeli attack against the Iranians in Syria, the speaker ironically retorted "blind? Really?"! However, the Iranian threat is not only affecting Israel's security: all Arab states are concerned. President Trump, according to the Israeli leader, was perfectly right in denouncing the JCPOA. Indeed, Mr Netanyahu believes this agreement not only allowed Iran to reach for nuclear weapons, but also allowed its regime to reinvest the economic benefits it drew from the deal into the systematic conquest of the region. On this point, the Arab states and Israel’s views and interests converge, which explains the gradual rapprochement we have witnessed in recent years, and which has accelerated these past months.

Mr Netanyahu does not claim that the historical discord between the Arabs and Israel has been overcome. He only mentioned a continuous rapprochement, which could be encouraged by the contribution that Israel, thanks in particular to its mastery of new technologies, could make to the development of the region. One of the consequences Mr Netanyahu draws from this is the opportunity, according to him, to reconsider the Palestinian issue. As opposed to the approach adopted so far, he thinks it is by making peace with the rest of the Arab world that the Israelis could reach peace with the Palestinians. In this context, for the first time in years, the Israeli Prime Minister mentions the possibility of a "two-state solution". Yet he makes it clear that Israel will in any case retain control over security issues in both states: "Palestinians will be able to govern themselves, but not to threaten us". It is irrelevant to him whether such a "Palestinian state" is described as reduced to "state minus" or "autonomy plus".

"Why does Mr Netanyahu bother to promote his vision of a new Middle Eastern order among Europeans? This question is all the more relevant that, if we take what he says at face value, the game is over."

For observers following the situation in the Middle East, there is no real novelty in Mr Netanyahu's speech at the Policy Exchange. His thesis is obviously not flawless. For example, it seems a bit hasty to argue that there is an "Arab camp" united against Iran. In fact, what Mr Netanyahu describes only concerns Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ approach, with which Egypt or Iraq, for example, do not identify - not to mention Qatar. As for the Trump Administration, it is indeed animated by a strong anti-Iran sentiment, but its willingness to confront Iran on the ground is yet to be demonstrated. The Israeli Prime Minister's address to the Policy Exchange, however, offers a particularly clear and articulated summary of his views. One can imagine he exposed them with the same vigour in his discussions with the German Chancellor, the French President and his interlocutors in London. This brings us back to the initial question: why does Mr Netanyahu bother to promote his vision of a new Middle Eastern order among Europeans? This question is all the more relevant that, if we take what he says at face value, the game is over. Either way, the region’s landscape is in the process of being recomposed by an alignment of the interests of America, Russia, Israel and the Arab states.

A possible answer is that Mr Netanyahu is probably trying to ensure that Europeans do not limit the effects of the anti-Iran coalition by avoiding a too great isolation of Iran. European decision-makers should draw two lessons from this. First, of course, it will be increasingly difficult for them to maintain a balanced position, torn between the coalitions currently crystallizing in the Middle East, on the basis of the "for or against Iran" criterion. The second lesson is more important. Since the American withdrawal of the JCPOA, the whole debate exclusively focused on Europe's ability to ensure that economic ties with Iran remain strong by resisting the American secondary sanctions. This is partly due to the strategy followed by Tehran, but also to the choices made by Europeans themselves. However, doesn’t Mr Netanyahu's European tour suggest that the real European map is in fact political? Doesn’t one of Europe's key roles rely on whether or not it can vindicate certain developments? If Europe’s sort of "legitimizing power" had completely disappeared, at least in the Middle East, Mr Netanyahu would not be so keen to cultivate his relations with European leaders.

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