Macron walks fine line as Netanyahu seeks anti-Iran front

Israeli, French leaders look to cooperate despite criticism over Gaza and Paris’s desire to uphold the nuclear deal with Tehran

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace on December 10, 2017 in Paris. (AFP/Ludovic Marin)
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace on December 10, 2017 in Paris. (AFP/Ludovic Marin)

PARIS, France (AFP) — French President Emmanuel Macron was set to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday on the second leg of the latter’s European trip amid deep differences over how to contain Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East.

It will be the third meeting of the two leaders in Paris since last July, and while they agree on the threats posed by Tehran’s missile projects and foreign interventions, they differ strongly on the response.

Netanyahu has pursued his strident criticism of Tehran during his visit to Europe, warning during a stop in Berlin on Monday that its activities risked fueling a new influx of migrants toward Germany.

Iran was intent on fueling “a religious war inside Syria and the consequences will be many, many more refugees and you know where exactly they will come,” he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Netanyahu has been emboldened by US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 accord curbing Iran’s nuclear program — and the threat of harsh sanctions against European firms doing business in the country.

Yet Macron has led a staunch defense of the accord, whose non-US signatories — France, Britain, Germany, China, Russia and the EU — have maintained a common front so far.

“Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal is to not find himself isolated along with Washington,” said David Khalfa of the Institute for European Prospective and Security in Paris.

“At a minimum he’s looking to force Europeans to reinforce the existing accord” via the US sanctions, but is also seeking the prospect of a joint Saudi-US-Israel bloc setting the agenda in the Middle East, Khalfa said.

Macron has warned that letting the deal fall apart will only inflame tensions, especially if harsh sanctions smother the economic relief Iranians began to enjoy after it was signed in 2015.

He and Netanyahu are scheduled to hold a press conference after their talks and launch a season of cultural exchanges between their countries this year.

Balancing act

But relations have been further strained by the killing of 123 Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including at least 61 people on May 14 alone.

A large majority of those killed on May 14, and in the weeks-long protests on the Gaza border, were members of Gazan terror groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israel insists its troops were acting to defend the border against constant attacks and attempts at penetrating the border fence and entering Israel.

Macron denounced the “violence by Israel’s armed forces” even as he noted the country’s security concerns, a position deemed too simplistic by Israeli officials while also being derided by his left-wing critics in France.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe canceled a planned trip to Israel last month.

Several pro-Palestinian groups are planning protests against Netanyahu in cities across the country, while three journalist unions have called his visit “intolerable.”

Against that backdrop, talks on seeking an end to the Palestinian conflict have fallen to the wayside, not least after Trump broke with decades of protocol by recognizing Israel’s claim of Jerusalem as its capital.

Macron has announced plans to visit both Israel and the Palestinian Authority this year.

“Macron is taking a very pragmatic approach, separating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from their bilateral cooperation,” said Khalfa, noting in particular Macron’s appreciation of Israel’s push to become a tech-savvy “startup nation.”

Macron and Netanyahu are also planning to inaugurate a show highlighting Israel’s technological innovations, “Israel@lights,” at the Grand Palais museum in Paris.

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