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Analysis

Without budging on Iran or Palestinians, Macron offers Lapid an important gift

Limited in the tangible steps they can make to transform ties amid political gridlock, the French leader shows the world who he wants to win Israel’s November election

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Yair Lapid (R) embraces French President Emmanuel Macron at a press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 5, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid (R) embraces French President Emmanuel Macron at a press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 5, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

At first blush, Yair Lapid should have had an easy time coming out of his initial trip abroad as prime minister with tangible accomplishments.

It was a one-day trip to Paris to meet with his close friend, French President Emmanuel Macron — the diplomatic equivalent of a layup.

Lapid and Macron have a warm personal relationship stretching back before either of them was in a leadership role. Lapid took the unusual step of endorsing Macron in the 2017 presidential election, and Macron seemed to return the favor by hosting him at the Elysee Palace in Paris only four days before the April 2019 elections in Israel. In late November 2021, Lapid visited Paris and met with Macron at the end of a three-day trip to Europe.

And as foreign minister, Lapid has made a point of improving Israel’s relationship with France.

The two centrist leaders also find themselves in similar political straits — Macron’s alliance lost its parliamentary majority in June elections, and must now cobble together ad-hoc coalitions to pass legislation. Lapid is at the head of a collapsed coalition for the coming months, and will likely have to put together another ideologically broad alliance after the November elections if he wishes to stay in power.

Moreover, Macron seems interested in changing France’s relationship with Israel, which has seen Paris as leading the EU bloc that is critical of the Jewish state. France’s envoy to Israel Eric Danon told visiting French parliamentarians last July that Macron intends to reset relations with Israel if he is reelected in 2022, according to a diplomatic source with knowledge of the meeting.

President Isaac Herzog (L) and French Ambassador Eric Danon at a Bastille Day celebration, Jaffa, July 14, 2021. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

And reelected he was.

“He wants to create a real change in the paradigm, in the way France sees the situation in the Middle East,” said Arie Bensemhoun, CEO of ELNET France, an organization that seeks to build ties between Israel and France.

“It is no coincidence that Prime Minister Lapid chose France as the first country he traveled to shortly after he became prime minister,” Yael German, Israel’s envoy to France, told The Times of Israel. “This symbolizes the strategic relationship and the special friendship between Israel and France, and the personal friendship between Prime Minister Lapid and President Macron. I am sure that these connections and this friendship will bring about stronger ties between the countries and fruitful cooperation in all areas.”

Then-Blue and White party no. 2 Yair Lapid meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, April 5, 2019. (Facebook screenshot)

There were agreements on the steps France was willing to take to ensure that progress is made on the making progress on a maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon, sources indicated.

But circumstances drastically limit what Lapid and Macron can achieve right now.

First and foremost is the political unrest in Israel.

“Macron is very disposed to reset relations with Israel,” said Emmanuel Navon of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “But right now it’s a transition government, and no one knows who is going to be in power in four months.”

That person could well be Benjamin Netanyahu, in a coalition that includes far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich and further-right MK Itamar Ben-Gvir as ministers. Both men have supported positions that would likely be beyond those of even Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, which Israel boycotts.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (File; Courtesy)

Beyond the orientation of a potential Netanyahu-led coalition, bad blood remains between Netanyahu and France over the former Israeli premier’s strategy of pitting pro-Israel central European countries against the rest of the EU.

“There is really a gap between very welcome and positive statements yesterday, and the fact it might become completely irrelevant in four months,” Navon explained.

There are also serious policy differences that won’t disappear.

While Lapid called on the world to respond to Iranian violations in his statement next to Macron at the Elysee Palace, his friend called it “a good agreement” that must be defended.

It was another indication that France’s stance on the Iran deal is not something that Lapid can alter, despite the personal friendship with Macron.

Prime Minister Yaïr Lapid with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on July 5, 2022. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

“We can scream all day until we’re blue in the face,” said Navon, “but no one cares. If the Europeans and the Americans think that maybe there’s a chance of salvaging the deal, they’ll do it regardless of what Israel says.”

Macron also pressed Lapid publicly that there must be progress toward “a solution to the Palestinian question that meets both Israel’s security interests and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

Lapid, as expected, avoided the Palestinian issue altogether in his public remarks.

But Macron’s prodding on the Palestinians was more measured than it may seem. He recognized the difficulty involved, and avoided any uncomfortable specifics about dividing Jerusalem and returning to the pre-1967 borders.

“He didn’t say things that made the Israelis uncomfortable,” said Bensemhoun. “He said that we need to move forward and have negotiations. He gave the minimum service, as we say in French.”

A picture shows a TV screen displaying a live televised between French President and La Republique en Marche (LREM) party candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron (L) and French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (R), on April 20, 2020. (Ludovic Marin/AFP)

And he included in his statement about the Palestinians what was his biggest gift to Lapid on the trip.

As the interim prime minister tries to convince enough voters that he has what it takes to lead the country at the head of a coalition, Macron told the world that Lapid could be a historic leader.

“You have the makings of someone who can take up this challenge,” Macron proclaimed, referring to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He also referenced “the need to regain stability in Israel’s political life,” a possible dig at Netanyahu, who is trying for the fifth time in recent years to cobble together a lasting coalition.

Macron was sure to embrace Lapid in front of the cameras — though the enthusiasm did become somewhat awkward in practice — and walk into the palace with his arm around the man he clearly hopes will be leading Israel in 2023 and beyond.

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