Five months ago, on December 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a press conference in his office announcing the firing of two of his top ministers: then justice minister Tzipi Livni and finance minister Yair Lapid.
As a result, early elections were called, and a transition government took over. That transition government has now been in charge for more than five months (that’s a quarter of the life of the government it replaced, which lasted just some 20 months).
Transition or caretaker governments are not ordinarily characterized by feverish diplomatic activity, and this one was no exception.
While the Palestinians did mount a diplomatic offensive in December, unsuccessfully trying to get a resolution passed in the UN Security Council, and – when that failed – joined the International Criminal Court, the international community for the most part has waited quietly as Israel sorted out its domestic politics.
First it waited until the March 17 elections, and since the elections the world has been waiting for Netanyahu to set up a new government.
And now that the Wednesday deadline for establishing a government is fast approaching, some are again predicting a “diplomatic tsunami” once the new government is sworn in.
According to this scenario, US President Barack Obama is just waiting to remove the diplomatic protection the US has provided Israel at the UN, and the Europeans are chomping at the bit to push forward diplomatic initiatives and start sanctioning Israeli companies doing business across the 1949 Armistice Line (Green Line).
Warnings of a diplomatic tsunami have been heard in the past, most notably in 2011, when then defense minister Ehud Barak warned of just such a development if Israel did not take bold initiatives on the Palestinian front to fend off the vote in the UN that year on Palestinian statehood.
But just as Barak’s forecast did not materialize in 2011, it is doubtful that concerns about Israel being swept under by a diplomatic tsunami in the coming months will materialize either.
Will the Palestinian issue once again return to the international agenda? Certainly.
Will there be pressure for the new government to come up with some kind of initiative? Undoubtedly. But that does not amount to a diplomatic tsunami.
First of all, Washington – which immediately after Netanyahu’s reelection threatened to “reassess” its Mideast diplomatic policy – is unlikely to take any significant measures until after the June 30 deadline for concluding an Iranian nuclear deal.
With Obama already facing an uphill fight with Congress over the issue, he will be reticent to open up yet another front with Israel that could further complicate matters for him on the Hill. Supporting a UN resolution that Jerusalem views as being inimical to its interests would do just that.
This, apparently, is the primary reason that several reports emerged in Washington over the last few days indicating that the US was backing off support for a French UN Security Council proposal to set the parameters for a final Israeli-Palestinian deal. Take note, as well, of Vice President Joe Biden’s recent “charm offensive,” including warm and empathetic speeches to mark Israel’s Independence Day, and on Thursday to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His were not the words of an administration on the verge of dramatically shifting Washington’s policies toward the Jewish state.
Once the Iran deal deadline passes, there is also no guarantee of US support for the French UN proposal, since the US election campaign will only be a few months away, and there will be loud voices within the Democratic Party calling on Obama to refrain from doing anything that could potentially scare away pro-Israel Democratic contributors in the short term, or Jewish voters in swing states like Florida and Ohio in the longer term.
This doesn’t mean the Europeans – led by the French – won’t push with their proposals. They will. But this push will not amount to a tsunami unless the US supports it at the UN, something far from certain.
The French initiative must be seen within the context of its policy of forging new strategic ties with the Persian Gulf States, ties that led to the announcement Thursday that Qatar will buy $7 billion worth of French fighter planes, and also brought about an unusual invitation by Saudi King Salman to French President Francois Hollande to attend the upcoming summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
France pleased the Gulf States (and Israel) by taking the toughest stand among the P5+1 countries negotiating with the Iranians – pleasing the Gulf States was probably one of the reasons for Paris’s decision to take this tough stand – and would please them further by pushing the Palestinian issue.
But despite France’s desire to show that the US is not the only significant player on the Israeli- Palestinian track, its ability to significantly move anything forward without Washington’s support is limited.
Another fear often heard is that once a new government is sworn in, and if an initiative is not put out there that meets European desires, Israel will face economic sanctions from the EU the likes of which it has not seen before.
But recent legislation in Congress linking free trade agreements between the US and Europe to the European countries abstaining from Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) against Israel may take some of the sting out of that threat as well, as it is questionable whether European countries would want to jeopardize trade with the US by boycotting companies doing business in the West Bank.
All of this is not to say that the new government will not face major diplomatic challenges once it is formed, and will have its work cut out for it in convincing Washington and the rest of the world of its sincerity in trying to reach a peaceful accommodation with the Palestinians.
But a wave of pressure after months when the Palestinian issue has largely been absent from the international agenda does not a diplomatic tsunami make.