As final stage of peace talks approaches, Netanyahu must play his cards right

Erika Atzori

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton. Photo Source: European Union via Flickr.

Netanyahu’s absence at Mandela’s funeral – let alone the reason he chose to give by saying it would be “too costly” – is just the latest of a series of events highlighting the increasingly uncomfortable position of the Israeli Prime Minister vis-à-vis his international peers. Over the last few years, signs of impatience and mistrust have consistently emerged from official and unofficial statements by western leaders, letting Netanyahu’s perceived isolation become more apparent. With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks reaching a final stage in April 2014, it is legitimate to wonder whether such international lack of sympathy for Netanyahu, as well as his sustained uncompromising attitude to the peace process, will translate into a weaker position for Israel at the negotiations table.

During the 2011 G20 summit in Cannes, a conversation between Nicholas Sarcozy and Barack Obama was recorded, in which the former French President said he could not bear Netanyahu and called him “a liar”. Obama’s response was no more praising: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Earlier in 2011, Germany and the UK had voted in favour of the Palestinian proposal to the UN Security Council (vetoed by the US) demanding that all settlement activity in West Bank ceased immediately. Officials reported a furious Angela Merkel answering to Netanyahu’s complaints: “How dare you. You are the one who disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.” David Cameron, speaking in Parliament, said that had Netanyahu complained to him, he would have received a similar response. Also commenting on the subject, former Dutch Prime Minister Dries van Agt, concluded: “Most of the European leaders, headed by those of the major countries – France, Britain and Germany – are partners to the feeling that it’s impossible to trust Netanyahu.”

A milestone in Netanyahu’s realisation that perhaps his narrative had been losing grip on his international counterparts was certainly the UN General Assembly‘s vote to accord Palestine the status of non-member observer state, in November 2012. To Israel’s great disappointment, and after Tel Aviv had been lobbying tirelessly against it, an overwhelming majority comprising most European countries (some of which had planned to abstain until the very last minute) voted in favour, while the German, British and Dutch historic allies abstained and just 9 countries, among which the US, Canada and the Czech Republic, voted against.

Another important step was the European Union Commission’s issuance of new guidelines prohibiting that any grants or funding are awarded to Israeli entities based in the pre-1967 occupied territories, i.e. West Bank, Jerusalem and Golan Heights. Such guidelines, which apply to all areas of cooperation between the EU and Israel but not to human rights organisations, reflect the EU’s willingness to adopt a more robust stance against Israel’s continuous settlement expansion, which represents one of the main obstacles to the peace process. There is also a growing consensus among EU member states to issue EU guidelines on labelling settlement products, as some countries (notably Britain, Denmark and Holland) have already done.

But it was perhaps only after the ‘Iran Deal’ on the nuclear issue, reached between the 5+1 and Iran in November 2013, that Netanyahu felt cornered on all fronts. The deal, which came shortly after the first US-Iran presidential direct talks since 1979, was welcomed by the international community at large as a first, positive step towards a more comprehensive agreement. Israel’s response to the deal was furious as Netanyahu felt let down by his closest allies, first and foremost the US. “What was achieved yesterday in Geneva,” he stated, “is not a historic agreement but rather a historic mistake.”

Whether the weakening of Israel’s position on the international scene is directly or indirectly due to Netanyahu’s declining political credibility can be a disputable matter. Perhaps, some of the arguments used by Netanyahu to make the case for Israel’s security priorities, for instance against the “Iranian nuclear threat”, would have been more credible if the Israeli government had shown some willingness to make concessions or a genuine commitment to negotiating a sustainable peace with the Palestinians. However, other variables have also played a role and are worth being added to the equation.

Firstly, the election of Hassan Rohani as new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Tehran’s consequent radical change in tone and rhetoric, softened the irrational, threatening image that Iran under Ahmadinejad had suffered in the previous years. This allowed a cautious rapprochement between a more “pragmatic” Tehran, Washington and Europe, which led to an unprecedented diplomatic effort to find an agreement on the long-standing nuclear issue. Secondly, US “revamped” Middle East policy under John Kerry, who has shown a remarkable degree of personal ambition, willingness to take risks, and a strong determination to bring home tangible results. Thirdly, although still far from developing a unified foreign policy voice, the European Union has adopted some actions aimed at creating disincentives to Israel’s illegal settlement expansion, and seems determined to ensure the costs of such policies have an impact on the Israeli government and public opinion.

Within this framework, and with the peace negotiations reaching a final stage in April, Netanyahu will have to play his cards right. Diplomacy, as found by a recent research by ECFR on the prospects for a two-state solution, will be key. ECFR’s study highlights the “urgency of restarting the peace process” and warns that “any lessening of diplomatic intensity would leave the prospects for a two-state outcome even more fragile.” In this context, it is reasonable to predict that pressure from the US and Europe will become tougher and Netanyahu will need to find a pragmatic balance between international partners’ demands and requests from the most hardline members of his own government, who oppose the idea of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders. Netanyahu’s balance appears even more precarious since some European countries have warned him that Israel would be blamed for the collapse of the talks should he make any false steps.

The Israeli public opinion could also play a crucial role. Israelis are quite supportive of a the two-state solution (62%), although only 28.8% think that this can be achieved through negotiations, while only 10% ranked this issue as a priority. But how much do Israelis value the opportunities that international cooperation with Europe and the US can offer? And how would they react if these opportunities were lost or denied?

Recently, The EU guidelines on settlements threatened Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020, a scientific cooperation agreement providing funding for Research and Innovation. The EU rejected Israel’s demand to remove the clause prohibiting the funding of entities which operate in the settlements. Senior Israeli academics and members of the scientific community urged the government to do everything possible to find an agreement that would enable Israel to participate, and warned about the damages of a potential exclusion to Israel’s research & development sector. The EU and Israel eventually decided to “agree to disagree” (Israel objected to the clause and the EU will implement the guidelines;) however, most importantly, the negotiations generated a debate among Israelis on the potential costs of the occupation.

Although timid, these changes suggest that a tougher international stance towards Israeli policies could generate some positive outcomes, and therefore Israel’s international partners should continue acting on two levels: firstly, implement a policy of disincentives which highlight the costs of not abiding to international law and of delaying – or avoiding – peace negotiations; secondly, challenge the government’s narrative in order to generate a domestic public debate with a view to pushing the Israeli public to lobby the government. Most importantly, this implies holding the Israeli government responsible for its actions. If Netanyahu and Abu Mazen blamed each other for the collapse of the peace talks, it would be no surprise and nobody would listen. But what if the European and American allies started to point fingers?

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