Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s Diplomatic ‘Bright Future’ Runs Into Settlement Anger

  • Netanyahu says French conference is ‘rigged’ by Palestinians
  • Israel concerned Paris plan to be rushed to Security Council

Benjamin Netanyahu likes to boast of the new allies Israel has made around the world, and how they’ll blunt criticism of the Jewish state in international forums. He’s also praised the “true friend” Israel will have in the White House once Donald Trump takes over, after eight years of frosty relations with Barack Obama.

Yet none of Netanyahu’s new friends was able to block a stinging indictment of Israeli settlements at the United Nations last month. Now the Israeli leader is girding for what he fears will be another attempt to dictate terms to his country when representatives of 75 states and international organizations convene in Paris on Sunday to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

“The conference convening in Paris today is a useless conference,” Netanyahu said in a Cabinet meeting today. “It’s being coordinated between the French and the Palestinians. Its goal is to try and force terms on Israel that conflict with our national needs.”

Still smarting from his loss at the UN, Netanyahu is boycotting the Paris conference, which he says is representative of a world clinging to a bygone era where “international diktats” could be imposed on the Middle East. A Foreign Ministry document sent to officials around the world tells them not to debate the content of any parameters or decisions made in Paris but rather to express opposition to the entire conference, which seeks to circumvent direct talks with the Palestinians, according to a copy of the text seen by Bloomberg. 

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment on instructions to diplomats but said Israel’s position is that only direct talks between the two sides can lead to an accord.

The ‘Magician’

Any declarations from Paris will be mostly symbolic if they’re not supported by the Trump administration, but international pressure on Israel over settlement building isn’t likely to abate, said Alon Liel, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

“Netanyahu has given this impression in recent years that no one is angry at us and that he is a magician -- settling, settling and settling in the West Bank, and nothing happens,” Liel said. It’s true that Israel has forged better international ties under Netanyahu’s leadership, Liel said, but “international anger is there, and there is a way to punish Israel for building settlements.”

French President Francois Hollande said Sunday that the Paris conference will reaffirm support for a two-state solution, but a Palestinian state can only come about through direct talks with Israel. He noted that the “two-state solution is threatened” by the building of settlements, the weakness of the peace camp, mistrust between the two sides, and by terrorism. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who like Netanyahu didn’t attend the meeting, will meet Hollande in the weeks after the conference.

“We call upon the participants to take concrete measures in order to implement international law and UN resolutions,” Abbas said in a statement Saturday. “It is long overdue for the Palestinian people to exercise their basic right to live in freedom and dignity.”

Read: The background to the conference in Paris

Netanyahu’s concern that any decisions taken Sunday will be rushed through the UN Security Council before Trump takes office is a far cry from the confidence he exuded in previous months. Over the past year he has made the case that trade ambitions and shared radical Islamist enemies have made Israel a desirable partner in Africa, Asia and even moderate Persian Gulf states, and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict a non-issue.

Israel has deepened trade ties with China, Japan and other Asian countries, and over the summer Netanyahu led a business delegation of more than 50 people on a swing through east African nations. Israel has been seeking to become an observer member of the African Union, a status conferred on the Palestinians but which Israel lost in 2002 when the union replaced its predecessor organization.

Netanyahu frequently speaks of improved ties with Gulf countries, and in 2015 Israel opened an office in Abu Dhabi, headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency. Still, Arab nations don’t speak publicly about ties with Israel, and most expressed support for the UN resolution and a subsequent speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry excoriating Israel for expanding settlements.

Veteran Allies

As recently as September, Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that international perceptions of the Jewish state were undergoing a revolution.

“The change will happen in this hall because back home your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes toward Israel,” he said. “World leaders increasingly appreciate that Israel is a powerful country with one of the best intelligence services in the world. Many of your governments seek our help in keeping your countries safe.”

Netanyahu confidants say that to judge his foreign policy record one must distinguish between bilateral ties and international forums such as the UN. Israel’s direct diplomatic and economic ties have advanced under Netanyahu, who recently visited the Muslim-majority countries of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, said Dore Gold, who until recently was Netanyahu’s director general at the foreign ministry.

“Those bilateral relationships have been undergoing a diplomatic spring,” said Gold, who now directs the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and advises Netanyahu informally. “What will take time is to get a change in voting patterns in the UN, where there is a historical pattern of behavior for several decades.”

One impetus behind Netanyahu’s campaign to broaden Israel’s ties has been friction with veteran allies in Europe and the Obama administration over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. The Security Council vote -- in which the U.S. didn’t use its veto power to shield Israel, a departure from the usual practice -- demonstrated that alliances with the likes of Uganda and Kazakhstan can’t replace the American umbrella at the Security Council.

Rallying Cry

Leaders with whom Netanyahu says he’s developed a rapport in recent years, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, told their envoys to approve the UN measure. And it was Egypt -- the first Arab country with which Israel made peace -- that initially circulated the resolution.

Egypt later backed down, under pressure from Netanyahu and at his behest, Trump. The episode showed both the limits of Netanyahu’s strategy -- and, in a partial way, a success.

“We have to be very modest and build our alliances step by step,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. “We are becoming stronger and more influential,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we have real leverage.”

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