Nearly 150 leaders from around the world descended on Paris on Monday to take part in the climate change conference there, and also to show support for France following last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130.
Most of the leaders wanted to sit down with Hollande, the host of the conference and a leader whose stature inside France has risen steadily since the attacks. Hollande had to pick and choose. Though he could shake hands with many, he could only sit down for an extended tete-a-tete with a few.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of those whose request for a meeting was granted, and this comes despite very significant policy differences between Jerusalem and Paris regarding the Palestinian conflict
. It was done, as one diplomat in France said, because France has very good reason to cooperate with Israel now on counter-terrorism issues.
This says much about Israel’s standing in the world.
As does a conversation Netanyahu had in Paris with another European leader, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who was just in Israel last week and met with Netanyahu.
They also are scheduled to meet again in Athens and the Nicosia next month, so they really didn’t have to reconnect again in Paris.
But they did.
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What’s interesting about Tsipras is that, just a few months ago, the far-left Syriza party that he heads was extremely critical of Israel.
But now, as prime minister, he seemingly can’t get enough face time with Netanyahu.
This, too, is not because he sees eye-to-eye with Netanyahu on a solution to the Palestinian conflict, but rather because for economic issues – working together on energy matters, as well as tapping into Israel’s technology pool – it is very much in Greece’s interest to deal closely with the Jewish state.
Netanyahu told reporters in Paris on Monday that many countries of the world realize that achieving a comprehensive deal between Israel and the Palestinians at this time is an illusion. And, although many of those countries would like to see Israel adopt different policies toward the Palestinians, they do not want to mortgage their relationship with Israel to this one issue because Israel has what to offer them: from experience, advice and intelligence on fighting terrorism to technological solutions for a wide array of the 21st century’s most pressing problems.
Netanyahu’s meetings with a long list of leaders in Paris came a single day after he issued a directive to suspend cooperation with European Union institutions on matters dealing with the non-existent peace process pending a reassessment of Israel’s ties with the EU, due to its decision to label settlement products.
As a result of this directive, Israel’s ties with the EU would be curtailed, but not its ties with individual European states. Netanyahu was making a distinction between what he refers to as the EU bureaucracy in Brussels that he believes takes a one-sided approach to the conflict, and the governments in places like Berlin, London, Athens, Warsaw and Prague.
Since Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009 when the EU froze a full upgrade of its relations with Israel, Brussels has indeed made clear that the Palestinian issue is placing limits on the depth and breadth of its overall relationship with Israel.
However, individual European countries, who have particular economic and security concerns, have not necessarily done so. This is why, even though relations with Brussels may sour, relations with key European governments remain strong – not necessarily because of any affection for Netanyahu or his policies, but simply because of the centrality of the Middle East right now, and how Israel can help them. And this was something on clear display in Paris.
A distorted perception of Israel’s position in the world can be had by paying overmuch attention to decisions by organizations like the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israel, and to listening to the rhetoric of Israel’s own opposition politicians claiming that the government’s policies are effectively isolating country. Anthropology professors are not generally the bellwether of US public opinion, and warning of Israel’s isolation is the default mode of opposition parties trying to unseat the government.
The opposition fell deep into this trap during the last elections when it went into overdrive in describing an Israel on the verge of near-total collapse. For months, they painted the picture of an utterly miserable reality, thinking that in this way they could win votes. But the picture they painted did not match the reality most people lived, and they lost.
That same dynamic is at play today. Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni is overstating things when she says, as she did on Monday, that Netanyahu’s decision to suspend the peace process contact with the EU was adding “another brick in the wall of Israel’s isolation.”
The slew of meetings and conversations Netanyahu held in Paris – with the leaders of Russia, the US, India, Japan, Germany, France, Australia, Poland, Lithuania, Mongolia and others – is not the trappings of an isolated country around which the world is erecting a wall.
Neither is the fact that the United Arab Emirates has agreed to let Israel open a mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) located in Abu Dhabi an indication of that type of isolation. Though that office will not be a bilateral mission to the UAE, the very fact that an Israeli office will be located in that Persian Gulf state is not void of significance.
What is telling is that IRENA has been in Abu Dhabi since 2009, but only now will Israel be opening a mission. Why now? Perhaps because in the intervening six years the interests of the two countries – due to the threat from Shi’a Iran on one hand, and Sunni extremists on the others – have begun to converge.
All this is more proof of the old adage that nations act on interests.
With an earthquake sweeping through the Middle East and countries all over the world trying to figure out how to deal with the aftershocks, and with economies around the world more and more driven by technology – which Israel is very good at – more and more of these countries want to deal with Israel, even if they disagree with certain aspects of the current government’s policies.
Israel may not be the darling of the world’s ball, but – as was on full display in Paris – isolated it is not.
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