In Netanyahu’s Eurotrip, fantasies clash with reality

Extolling US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, PM urges acceptance of facts — but then, improbably, predicts most of Europe will move its embassies to holy city

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left)  holds a joint press conference with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini in Brussels, Belgium, October 11, 2017.(Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) holds a joint press conference with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini in Brussels, Belgium, October 11, 2017.(Avi Ohayon/GPO)

US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is nothing more than an acceptance of reality, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said repeatedly during his two-day trip to Europe this week.

“I think what President Trump has done is put facts squarely on the table,” Netanyahu said Monday at the European Union headquarters in Brussels.

“Peace is based on reality. Peace is based on recognizing reality, and I think the fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital is clearly evident to all of you who visit Israel, see where the seat of our parliament, our Knesset is, the seat of our government, my office, the President’s Office, the Supreme Court.”

A day earlier, during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Netanyahu argued that peace needs to build “on the foundation of truth, on the facts of the past and on the present.”

The sooner the Palestinians accept the “reality” of Jerusalem being Israel’s capital, the better, he said. Trump’s move punctured the Palestinians’ fantasy that Jerusalem is theirs, and thus advanced the cause of peace, he argued.

And then, while urging others to embrace reality, Netanyahu himself appeared to lose his grip on the facts, predicting that “all or most of the European countries will move their embassies to Jerusalem, recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and engage robustly with us for security, prosperity and peace.”

The Europeans made it amply clear, repeatedly, that they will neither recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital nor move their embassies to the city.

“You know where the European Union stands,” EU foreign policy czar Federica Mogherini had told Netanyahu just a moment earlier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has breakfast with the foreign ministers of EU countries in Brussels, December 11, 2017 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

“We believe that the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine along the 1967 line. This is our consolidated position and we will continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem until the final status of the Holy City is resolved through direct negotiations between the parties.”

On Friday, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Sweden had issued a joint statement reiterating their position that Jerusalem should ultimately be the capital of both Israeli and Palestinian states. “Until then, we recognize no sovereignty over Jerusalem,” they declared.

Sure, the Czech Republic last week recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But Israeli officials are split over whether that’s good or bad for the Jewish state, given that such a partial recognition further entrenches the position that East Jerusalem is not part of Israel and will become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Even Hungary, which last week was the only one among 28 EU member states to oppose a joint statement that would have condemned Trump’s move, on Monday declared that it would not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Hungary sees no reason to change its Middle East policy,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who warmly hosted Netanyahu in July, told reporters on Monday. “We will continue with the balanced politics we have been pursuing.”

A gendarme looks on as a man waves an Israeli flag and another waves a US flag as they look at unseen demonstrators taking part in a pro-Palestinian protest in Paris on December 9, 2017, against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (AFP/ Zakaria ABDELKAFI)

Austrian far-right leader and likely future interior minister Heinz-Christian Strache, who in June told Netanyahu that it was “totally absurd not to locate our Austrian Embassy in Jerusalem, as we do in other capitals of other countries all over the world,” this week indicated that Vienna will not break with the European consensus on the matter.

As Netanyahu’s motorcade wriggled through the snowy streets of Brussels on the way to the airport, Mogherini again reiterated that the premier’s vision of European states recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a mere pipe dream.

“I know that Prime Minister Netanyahu mentioned a couple of times that he expects others to follow President Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. He can keep his expectations for others because from the European Union member states’ side this move will not come,” she said at a lunchtime press conference.

In the ‘lion’s den’ that is the EU, the peace process still counts

Netanyahu’s voyage to the “lion’s den” — as his aides had dubbed the EU capital in light of the union’s alleged pro-Palestinian leanings — was of a very different quality than his previous trips so far this year.

In 2017, Netanyahu crisscrossed the globe: he was in twice in Africa — in Liberia and Kenya — and became the first sitting prime minister to go to Latin America, Australia and Singapore. He also flew to New York, Moscow, Beijing, Budapest and other places where he could focus on promoting Israel as a rising power, as the startup nation that has much to offer to the nations of the world.

In Russia, China, Central Europe and South America, very few people care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Especially in Africa, many leaders see in Netanyahu primarily a strong leader whose country has much to contribute in terms of development aid, technological innovation and security know-how.

Not so in Europe. Many leaders here, both of the EU and individual member states, are deeply concerned over the stalemate in the peace process, for which they mostly blame Netanyahu.

Netanyahu came to Brussels with the goal of softening the perceived European hostility toward the Jewish state by dispelling what he calls the “myths about the Middle East” and by highlighting the various areas in which Israel can be of help.

European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address a media conference at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, December 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The wave of refugees from the Middle East is the Continent’s greatest challenge, he postulated at his joint appearance with Mogherini.

By “preventing the collapse of many parts of the Middle East adjacent to Israel that would otherwise be taken over by these militant Islamists, driving many, many, many millions into Europe,” the Jewish state serves a very important security function for the people of Europe, said Netanyahu.

Netanyahu went on to hail the prowess of Israel’s automotive, cybersecurity and natural gas industries.

“Therefore, the partnership between Israel and Europe is vital; in my opinion, it’s important not only for us — clearly it is, I wouldn’t be here otherwise — but I think it’s important for Europe,” he said.

He stressed Israel’s readiness to reach a peace agreement, but blamed the Palestinians’ unwillingness to accept a Jewish nation-state in any boundaries for the current stalemate.

“This is what led to the conflict, and this is what continues the conflict,” he said.

Two hours later, Netanyahu told reporters on the plane back home that he had urged the the EU to rethink two commonly held axioms: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of the region’s troubles, and that the settlements are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He steered clear of endorsing a two-state solution, he said, asking the EU foreign ministers whether such a state would be “Costa Rica or Yemen.”

There was no hostility and little resistance to his ideas, he told the reporters, adding that he succeeded “to a great extent” in convincing the foreign ministers of his views.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (left) speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he arrives for their meeting at the European Council in Brussels on December 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Eric Vidal)

But based on statements Mogherini made after Netanyahu had left the premises, the wish that his half-day in Brussels succeeded in convincing the EU to change its position or drop its focus on Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about as likely to come true as his prediction of Europeans moving their embassies to Jerusalem.

Yes, bilateral relations and regional developments were discussed, Mogherini said at a press conference. But “obviously, the situation in Jerusalem and the perspectives of the Middle East peace process have been the main points of our exchange.”

A lasting peace “remains a top priority for the European Union,” she stressed. “I have to say that Prime Minister Netanyahu realized, I think, from the ministers themselves that there is full EU unity on this: that the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states, with Jerusalem as the capital of both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine.”

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