PARIS—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Paris Saturday night for a meeting Sunday with French President Emmanuel Macron.
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The meeting in the Elysee Palace was originally planned as a friendly lunch, and was to focus on Iran, but in light of the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last week, it is now expected to be a more tense affair, in which Macron will demand explanations about Israel’s intentions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Last week, shortly before U.S. President Donald Trump gave his speech about Jerusalem on Wednesday, Macron was the first European leader to call him and warn about the potential regional impact of unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital only. On Sunday, Macron will become the first leader to host Netanyahu after the announcement. He intends to take advantage of this to interrogate Netanyahu about how Israel intends to act now, in light of the American declaration. France is especially worried about the decision’s implications for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.
Their meeting was scheduled last month, before Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem, in response to the crisis sparked by the resignation (since withdrawn) of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri announced his resignation in Saudi Arabia and flew from there to France.
On Saturday, as he took off for Paris and Brussels, Netanyahu lashed out at European nations for condemning Trump's decision, while failing to speak out against rocket fire at Israel. "I am taking off now to Paris and Brussels for meeting with the EU foreign minister. I will not accept a double standard from them. I hear voices condemning Trump [over Jerusalem] but not for rocket fire. I will not accept this hypocrisy. I will represent Israel with my head held high," Netanyahu said.
Paris has been very active in recent months in several important Middle East crises, including the ones that most pressing to Netanyahu at the moment: Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon, Iran’s growing presence in Syria and the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal. But while the French have labeled Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization, they have not done so for the organization’s political wing. Moreover, France is leading the charge to preserve the nuclear deal.
Nevertheless, France agrees with Israel about the regional threat posed by Iran, especially in Syria, as well as the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles. The latter was therefore supposed to be the main topic of the Macron-Netanyahu meeting.
Now, however, the meeting is expected to focus chiefly on Jerusalem. Other topics Macron is likely to raise, if time permits, are Israeli construction in the West Bank and its treatment of the Palestinians in Area C, the parts of the West Bank that are under full Israeli control according to the Oslo Accords.
France is also one of eight European states demanding financial compensation from Israel for confiscating and demolishing buildings and infrastructure the countries built for the Palestinians in Area C, on the grounds they were built illegally. The French also intend to raise this issue in Sunday’s meeting.
Most European countries, including France, have refrained from pressuring Israel too heavily, in the hope that the anticipated U.S. initiative to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks bears fruit. But after Trump’s speech on Wednesday, the Palestinians announced that they no longer consider the president an honest broker. The Europeans believe this opens the door to expanding their role in the process.
“President Macron has a very good relationship with both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” France’s Ambassador to Israel, Helene le Gal, who will accompany Netanyahu on his trip to France, told Haaretz Saturday. “This allows a frank conversation on every topic, such as Jerusalem or the peace process. On bilateral issues there is room for strengthening our cooperation, in particular regarding regional crises,” she said.
In fact, Macron and Trump speak by phone at least once a week. The two have several things in common which make this connection a natural one: Both came from outside the traditional party system, both like to boast that they plan to keep their promises and, as some Parisians say, the fact that Macron is a man — in contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example — gives him an edge in dealing with today’s Washington. Even Macron’s warning about the ramifications of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was delivered to Trump during one of their regular weekly conversations, most of which was actually devoted to the Kurdish issue rather than Israel.
The Netanyahu-Macron meeting is happening shortly before the launch of the France-Israel Year in 2018. This project has been awarded a substantial budget of 6 million shekels ($1.7 million), with funds coming from various government ministries. The Israeli cabinet resolution on the matter states that “the prime minister and foreign minister” — Netanyahu holds both portfolios — “will be responsible for leading the project and the budget, for executing it.”
The project is mainly cultural and will include events in both countries. France is not worried that French artists might boycott events in Israel, but it does expect demonstrations and protests against Israeli events in France.
After their lunch together, Netanyahu and Macron will make brief statements to the media. Netanyahu will then immediately leave for Brussels, where he is scheduled to meet on Monday with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and have breakfast with the foreign ministers of all 28 EU member states. Members of Netanyahu’s closest circles have referred to this as “entering the lion’s mouth.”
This meeting is expected to be even more tense than his meeting in Paris. Since Trump’s announcement on Wednesday, Mogherini has harshly condemned Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and said she plans to reiterate this to Netanyahu at their meeting.
The Jerusalem crisis has added new fuel to the EU fire over Netanyahu’s having in effect invited himself to the gathering, bypassing protocol, by securing an invitation from Lithuanian officials. This led Mogherini to invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a similar visit next month.