Friday’s phone conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was a massive climbdown from Netanyahu. Three months after suspending all contacts with the EU on the Palestinian issue, after it decided to label all produce from the settlements, he opted to restore relations without achieving anything – other than causing further harm to Israel’s image in Europe.
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For two weeks, Israeli and European diplomats labored on drafting a few lines that Netanyahu and Mogherini would recite to each other. Initially, there were some in Jerusalem who fantasized that Mogherini would declare that the labeling of produce originating beyond the 1967 borders would be the “last word” on sanctions against the settlements. However, they quickly realized they would have to suffice with a much more modest statement.
Mogherini’s influence on decisions made by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is limited. Netanyahu’s complaints against her after the 28 foreign ministers decided to mark settlement produce are akin to his attacks on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon following anti-Israel resolutions by the 15 members of the UN Security Council. By the same token, his expectations that she could force her colleagues in Europe to desist from further initiatives were greatly exaggerated.
The statements ultimately delivered by Mogherini recycled words she’s already said in the past – some of which led to her condemnation by Israel. Anyone comparing what she said three months ago to what she told Netanyahu on Friday will see that nothing has changed. Thus, she told the prime minister that the EU doesn’t consider the tagging of produce to be a boycott of Israel. Jerusalem not only has an opposing view of the reality, but considers the marking of produce to be part of the BDS campaign against Israel.
Netanyahu knew full well that the effectiveness of the sanctions he tried to implement against EU involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would be limited, if any. Imposing them served internal Israeli political needs no less than the delivering of a message to the EU. They may have created some difficulties for diplomats in Jerusalem and Brussels, but mainly served to unite key European states in their criticism of Israel.
At the end of the day, Netanyahu realized it was time to put away “national pride” – which he flaunted while assailing Israeli-Arab MKs from the Knesset podium last week – for the sake of diplomatic interests. The main reason that led him to suspend his childish boycott of the European Union was recognizing that the alternative was worse.
Netanyahu was looking at ways of blocking the new initiative from France, which is intending to convene an international peace conference. Even after the French initiative’s progenitor, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, left his post last week, the initiative has yet to be shelved. Even if it is buried, his successor is likely to launch a new one, which Israel will oppose as well.
Netanyahu and Mogherini have developed some kind of common purpose. She is leading a more moderate line with regards to Israel (compared to that of the Paris government) and is unhappy with the French activism. The EU foreign policy chief is trying to advance her own initiatives – more balanced ones – through the Quartet, a group in which American influence is greater.
Netanyahu understood that if he doesn’t talk to Mogherini, he’ll get the French.