International pressure to grow after election, but sky won’t fall

A hawkish new Netanyahu government will face an angry White House and frustrated EU, yet things might not be as bad as they seem

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (L) in Jerusalem on November 7, 2014 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (L) in Jerusalem on November 7, 2014 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

It was no secret that the international community was keeping its fingers crossed, praying for a change to a more dovish government in Israel. Now that these hopes were crushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resounding victory Tuesday, some fear that Europe and the United States will increase pressure on Israel over the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

There’s certainly cause for concern. The European Union has long threatened to punish Israel for what it perceives as foot-dragging, as well as over ongoing settlement construction, which is considered an obstacle to peace. Neither is US President Barack Obama much of a fan of Netanyahu, especially since the latter’s Congress speech earlier this month, in which he ferociously attacked the administration’s policy on Iran.

How the international community will react to Israel’s 33rd government will, of course, depend to a large degree on its makeup and the policies it pursues.

If Netanyahu opts for a narrow right-wing coalition including his Likud party, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu and the ultra-Orthodox lists — as most observers predict — world leaders will look toward Jerusalem with concern and skepticism. As soon as they start sensing that the new Netanyahu government acts as intransigently as the last one, or even more so, they will likely turn up the heat on Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s assertion that no Palestinian state would come into being on his watch, in an interview on Monday, has already raised consternation in Washington.

And yet, the sky won’t fall. While increased pressure on Israel to move toward resuming negotiations and implementing a two-state solution is a given, Israel is not about to become a pariah state, or even be subject to severe punitive measures, as several Israeli officials and analysts have indicated.

“It’s clear that it won’t be easy, but I don’t know how bad it will really be,” a senior Israeli diplomatic official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Even Netanyahu’s apparent repudiation of Palestinian statehood does not necessarily mean that the international community will turn the screws on Israel.

“There’s a difference between things said during an election campaign and actual policy decisions,” the official said.

‘There is negative momentum in the EU and this is going to continue’

Officials in Jerusalem identify the EU as the main potential source of diplomatic trouble in the months and years ahead. Brussels adopted a carrots-and-sticks approach to the peace process: If a final-status agreement is signed, both Israelis and Palestinians stand to gain special membership status at the Union. If the two sides do not make progress, however, some sort of sanctions will soon be on their way, EU officials have indicated time and again.

“There is negative momentum in the EU and this is going to continue, but most probably not at an increased pace,” a diplomatic official in Jerusalem said Wednesday. “Rather, it will increase at more or less the same pace. It’s going to get worse, but it’s not going to happen at an increased rate because of the election result.”

Also on Wednesday, the EU’s foreign policy czar, Federica Mogherini, said she was committed to working with the incoming Israeli government on the resumption of the peace process. “More than ever, bold leadership is required from all to reach a comprehensive, stable and viable settlement.”

In private conversations, European officials are less politically correct, admitting their apprehension at the prospect of trying to advance a two-state solution as long as Netanyahu is in power, especially if he assembles a coalition of partners to whom territorial concessions are anathema.

Even Jerusalem’s closest friends in the EU — Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands — would be hard pressed to defend Israel against efforts from others in the Union to turn the heat up on another Netanyahu government, they say. Governments usually supportive of Israel will be “empty-handed” in seeking to deflect such pressure if a right-wing government comes into power and prevents any progress on the peace talks, a senior European official told The Times of Israel recently.

But even if Brussels will try the stick in an effort to prod Israel forward on the Palestinian front, it won’t take out a sledgehammer. Indeed, the EU might not be willing or able to apply real pressure on Israel, according to a senior European diplomat serving in Israel.

“Right now, Europe’s governments are bothered by the situation in Ukraine, so it is doubtful that they will take the time to create another active front, this one against Israel,” the official told the Al-Monitor website.

“While it will be difficult to sell [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett or [Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor] Liberman as Israel’s defense minister, it is hard to imagine that the various governments in Europe’s capitals will be in any hurry to apply real pressure on Israel.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, speaks during an interview to The Associated Press in Jerusalem, Monday, February. 16, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, February 16, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Indeed, senior officials in Brussels cynically mocked the prospect of the EU actually trying to punish Israel for lack of progress on the peace process, according to the report.

The director of the Center for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah, Dr. Esther Lopatin, concurred, arguing that the fear that mighty Europe is about to exert heavy pressure on Israel has been exaggerated. Rather than alienate Israel, the EU is keen to increase academic, scientific and economic cooperation, she said. “There’s an acknowledgement in Europe that there a lot of smart people here who could help Europe.”

More importantly, she continued, political and societal trends within Europe will lead Brussels to take an increasingly benign attitude toward Jerusalem. The European Parliament, for instance, is increasingly dominated by center-right parties sympathetic toward Israel.

A case in point: Left-wing parties last year tried to pass a motion calling for the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. The center-right lists, however, succeeded in watering down the text of the resolution, adding the provision that such a recognition “should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced.”

“That was a victory” for Israel, Lopatin said, in that it basically reflects the government’s own position: that a Palestinian state can only come about as the result of negotiations.

European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (C) speaks during a debate on the recognition of Palestinian statehood, on November 26, 2014 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. (photo credit: AFP/Frederick Florin)
Federica Mogherini during a debate on the recognition of Palestinian statehood, November 26, 2014 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg (photo credit: AFP/Frederick Florin)

Furthermore, the arrival on the scene of the Islamic State causes many Europeans to identify with Israel’s plight. Indeed, she argued, threats of homegrown Islamist fundamentalism slowly breed understanding for Jerusalem’s positions on the peace process.

“In the past, there was a consensus in Europe, which was to be very critical of Israel and attack it all the time. I see now for the first time the beginning of friction in this camp,” she said.

To be sure, senior policymakers in Brussels told her repeatedly that they will “no longer tolerate” Israeli obduracy on the Palestinian front, Lopatin said. “But rhetoric is one thing, and action is something else.” Yes, the EU will continue to try to pressure Jerusalem on the peace process, but mainly by making statements and not by implementing punitive measures, she predicted. “Here and there we’re going to see things. But it’s not going to be very significant.”

Wanted: a new ambassador to Washington

What about the incoming Netanyahu government’s relations with the US? Despite assurances from Washington that it’ll work with whoever Israelis elect, ties between the president and the old-new prime minister are liable to remain frosty. Indeed, some observers predict Obama will seek to take revenge on Netanyahu for his defiant speech to Congress, perhaps by trying to impose a peace deal.

However, if Netanyahu indeed builds a right-religious coalition, another US-sponsored push at final-status negotiations with the Palestinians seems unlikely, as Washington knows such an effort would be doomed to failure.

And yet, Obama may find other ways to get back at Netanyahu. He might, for instance, decide not to veto, or even back, a United Nations Security Council resolution that would enshrine certain principles in international law, such as the need for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps. On Wednesday, in initial comments on Netanyahu’s strong election showing, the State Department did not rule out that option.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power talks during a previous Security Council meeting, on December 22, 2014 at the United Nations in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP)
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power during a Security Council meeting, December 22, 2014. (Don Emmert/AFP)

Israeli officials play down the tension between Jerusalem and Washington, but admit that the aforementioned scenario is not impossible.

“Relations with the US are fantastic,” an Israeli diplomat said. “Relations between the two heads of government are not brilliant, as everyone knows, but they will live with each other. We will see some prodding here and there, but at the end of day Israel and America are on the same side.” The diplomat admitted that Jerusalem does not rule out a scenario in which the administration would refuse to prevent the passing of a pro-Palestinian Security Council resolution. “We worry by definition. That’s part of our success,” he said.

Netanyahu should proactively try to prevent the current friction from developing into a long-term crisis, recommended Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies.

For one, the prime minister should appoint a foreign minister capable of building a new working relationship with Secretary of State John Kerry. Netanyahu should also urgently replace the current ambassador to Washington.

“Ron Dermer completely burned himself,” Gilboa said, referring to the Netanyahu confidant’s central role in planning his Congress speech. “Someone who will encounter closed doors at the White House and State Department cannot be effective.”

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer presents his credentials to President Barack Obama at the White House, December 4, 2013. (photo credit: Twitter/Amb. Ron Dermer)
Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer presents his credentials to President Barack Obama at the White House, December 4, 2013. (photo credit: Twitter/Amb. Ron Dermer)

The prime minister should also invite himself to the White House, Gilboa urged. Obama might not be keen on welcoming him, “but there’s no other way,” he said. “Neither the US nor Israel can wait until the end of Obama’s term, which is on January 20, 2017. Both leaders have to move on — it would be foolish to simply disconnect for the next two years.”

Either way, Gilboa warned, there is a real chance that the administration might not veto a Security Council resolution on Palestine, as a means to pressure Netanyahu and perhaps also to show him that he cannot challenge the White House and expect business as usual.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed