Israel’s Diplomatic ‘Bright Future’ Runs Into Settlement Anger

Benjamin Netanyahu likes to boast of the new allies Israel has made around the world, and how they’ll blunt criticism of the Jewish state in international forums. He’s also praised the “true friend” Israel will have in the White House once Donald Trump takes over, after eight years of frosty relations with Barack Obama.

Yet none of Netanyahu’s new friends was able to block a stinging indictment of Israeli settlements at the United Nations last month. Now the Israeli leader is girding for what he fears will be another attempt to dictate terms to his country when representatives of 75 states and international organizations convene in Paris on Sunday to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

The gathering in the French capital “is a rigged conference, rigged by the Palestinians with French auspices to adopt additional anti-Israel stances,” Netanyahu said Thursday. “This pushes peace backward. It’s not going to obligate us.”

Still smarting from his loss at the UN, Netanyahu is boycotting the Paris conference, which he says is representative of a world clinging to a bygone era where “international diktats” could be imposed on the Middle East. A Foreign Ministry document sent to officials around the world tells them not to debate the content of any parameters or decisions made in Paris but rather express opposition to the entire conference, which seeks to circumvent direct talks with the Palestinians, according to a copy of the text seen by Bloomberg. 

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment on any instructions to diplomats but said Israel’s position is that only direct talks between the two sides can lead to an accord.

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The ‘Magician’

While any declarations from Paris will be mostly symbolic if they’re not supported by the Trump administration, international pressure on Israel over settlement building isn’t likely to abate, said Alon Liel, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

“Netanyahu has given this impression in recent years that no one is angry at us and that he is a magician — settling, settling and settling in the West Bank, and nothing happens,” Liel said. It’s true that Israel has forged better international ties under Netanyahu’s leadership, Liel said, but “international anger is there, and there is a way to punish Israel for building settlements.”

French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that the Paris conference will reaffirm support for a two-state solution, but a Palestinian state can only come about through direct talks with Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has voiced support for the French initiative, but like Netanyahu — who has disparaged it from the start — Abbas won’t attend the meeting. Instead, he will meet Hollande in the weeks after the conference.

Netanyahu’s concern that any decisions taken Sunday will be rushed to the UN Security Council for approval before Trump takes office is a far cry from the confidence he exuded in previous months. Over the past year he has made the case that trade ambitions and shared radical Islamist enemies have made Israel a desirable partner — and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict a non-issue — in Africa, Asia and even in moderate Persian Gulf states.

Israel has deepened trade ties with China, Japan and other Asian countries, and over the summer Netanyahu led a business delegation of more than 50 people on a swing through east African nations. Israel has been seeking to become an observer member of the African Union, a status conferred on the Palestinians but which Israel lost in 2002 when the union replaced its predecessor organization.

Netanyahu frequently boasts of improved ties with Gulf countries, and in 2015 Israel opened its first diplomatic office in the United Arab Emirates. Still, Arab nations don’t speak publicly about ties with Israel, and most expressed support for the UN resolution and a subsequent speech by Secretary of State John Kerry excoriating Israel for expanding settlement.

Veteran Allies

“Israel has a bright future at the UN,” Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly in September. “Everything will change, and a lot sooner than you think. The change will happen in this hall because back home your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes toward Israel. World leaders increasingly appreciate that Israel is a powerful country with one of the best intelligence services in the world. Many of your governments seek our help in keeping your countries safe.”

Part of the impetus for his campaign, Netanyahu has said, has been friction with veteran allies in Europe and the Obama administration over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. The Security Council vote — in which the U.S. didn’t use its veto power to shield Israel, a departure from the usual practice — demonstrated that alliances with the likes of Uganda and Kazakhstan won’t shield Israel from censure of its settlement construction.

Leaders with whom Netanyahu says he’s developed a rapport in recent years, including Russia President Vladimir Putin, told their envoys to approve the UN measure.

Rallying Cry

In a pointed message to Netanyahu about the limits of his policies, it was Egypt — the first Arab country with which Israel made peace — that initially circulated the resolution.

It later backed down, under pressure from Netanyahu and at his behest, Trump, but countries such as Egypt can’t simply ignore the Palestinian struggle, according to Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations to have diplomatic ties with Israel, and even there antipathy toward the Jewish state remains strong and the plight of the Palestinians a rallying cry.

“We have to be very modest and build our alliances step by step,” Rabi said. “We are becoming stronger and more influential,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we have real leverage.”