Europe and Israel don’t see eye-to-eye on Iran — and maybe never will.
Netanyahu believes that any deal with Iran should tie its behavior to sanctions relief. It’s a good argument to make, when you consider the history of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its tendency to say one thing but mean another. And yet, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom did not heed Netanyahu’s case during the talks. Why not?
For a clue, look to Netanyahu’s press conference with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in Jerusalem last week. Iran was the subject, but it was about so much more. It was confrontational and decidedly undiplomatic. Netanyahu looked like a chided child when he was reminded of how close the British-Israeli security relationship is, how the British government has pledged to counter anti-Semitism and BDS, how trade and investment in Israel are up and scientific and technological cooperation is closer than ever. Hammond didn’t much care for the lecture he’d just received, how he’d been talked down to, especially given that the British government stood by Israel during last summer’s war in Gaza.
Judging by Hammond’s tone and posture, that press conference was in fact a manifestation of Europe’s problem not with Israel but with Netanyahu himself. Simply put, they’ve had it up to here with a man who is famed for inaction, yet berates foreign leaders on the need to do something about Iran — a man who has no compelling vision for his own country’s issues, yet cries daily, “This is a bad deal,” without really offering a viable alternative. Europe has stopped listening to Netanyahu about Iran.
The poor relationship between Netanyahu and Europe’s leaders comes back to the Palestinian question. Whether you believe it’s because of a genuine moral commitment or demographics, the fact remains that Palestinian statelessness matters more to the politics of Europe than to the United States. European leaders, rightly or wrongly, see not Mahmoud Abbas but Netanyahu as the reason for the lack of a peace agreement. Had Bibi made more of an effort to reach one since 2009, perhaps European leaders would have been more receptive to his thoughts on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Seen this way, the current state of affairs is a failure of Netanyahu’s foreign policy more broadly. Under him, Israeli foreign policy was outsourced for six years to a racist and ultra-nationalist, Avigdor Lieberman, who never knew how to communicate with Europe and never cared to learn. Right now, Israel doesn’t even have a Foreign Minister. The Deputy Foreign Ministry doesn’t believe in Palestinian statehood. The ministry itself has been allowed to wither into a husk. What passes for foreign policy these days is in fact a series of lectures and verbal attacks on foreign governments.
Israel doesn’t have a foreign policy. It’s a joke. Without a clear policy, a strong diplomatic core, or good personal relationships between Israeli and European leaders, how exactly can Netanyahu expect to influence Europe on Iran?
From the point of view of the Israeli government, there will be a temptation — and an understandable and justifiable one at that, considering the course of Jewish history — to look at the situation and say it’s just Europe doing what Europe does. Once more, when push comes to shove, Europe has elected to prioritize its own interests (including the interests of French and German businesses who wish to re-open the closed Iranian market) over the safety and security of Jews. Plus ça change, and all that.
It’s fair sometimes, but right now that temptation must be ignored. Yair Lapid recently suggested that the Knesset convene an investigative commission to examine Netanyahu’s foreign policy failures. Once you get past the irony of Lapid calling for an investigation into someone else’s failures in government, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, especially given that now the Iran deal is going to happen — regardless of whether the deal is sufficient or whether Netanyahu wants it — Israel needs to express to Europe its concerns about the deal’s implementation and future Iranian behavior in the region.
Sadly, what such an investigation might find is that relations between Netanyahu and Europe’s leaders are so broken, bruised, and battered that only a radical change in policy towards the Palestinians — or the end of King Bibi’s premiership itself — might help Israel.