Israel Elections: France's Emmanuel Macron joins Yair Lapid's campaign

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: The Israeli and French leaders had important things to discuss, but what stood out the most in an election season was Macron’s effusiveness about Lapid.

 FRENCH PRESIDENT Emmanuel Macron welcomes Prime Minister Yair Lapid as he arrives for a meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris, this week.  (photo credit: JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS)
FRENCH PRESIDENT Emmanuel Macron welcomes Prime Minister Yair Lapid as he arrives for a meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris, this week.
(photo credit: JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS)

FADE IN.

MONTAGE PLAYS: SOARING PATRIOTIC MUSIC.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid walks with US President Joe Biden on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport.

CUT TO: Lapid with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.

CUT TO: Lapid at the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council.

CUT TO: Lapid and French President Emmanuel Macron embrace in front of the Élysée Palace in Paris.

MACRON: “The people of Israel are lucky to have you as prime minister.”

CUT TO: Yesh Atid logo with the party’s voting letters.

LAPID (voice): “Yesh Atid. We’ve come to make changes.”

End scene

That ad, or something like it, is surely coming soon – or two weeks before the November 1 election – to a television screen near you.

If Lapid had hoped to use his experience as foreign minister and now prime minister to send the message that opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is not the only one who is in “another league,” as the Likud’s slogan went in 2019, his trip to Paris on Tuesday provided him with the perfect opportunity.

It seemed that the Yesh Atid election campaign kicked off in earnest at the Élysée Palace with Macron as the front man.

The prime minister’s staff says it wasn’t intentional. They would have chosen to wait a bit longer for Lapid’s first trip as prime minister, but that this was planned for his predecessor, Naftali Bennett. It was highly convenient, though, that the last trip Bennett planned was to meet with Lapid’s buddy in Paris.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid boarding a flight to Paris, marking his first trip as Israel's prime minister, July 5, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)Prime Minister Yair Lapid boarding a flight to Paris, marking his first trip as Israel's prime minister, July 5, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

Macron and Lapid have been friends for the better part of a decade, since they were government ministers and the leaders of new, centrist political parties.

Keeping in contact over WhatsApp, they have discussed how to compellingly relay a message of centrism that has its own ideas, and is not just a compromise between the Right and Left.

When Macron visited Israel in his years as president, he met with Lapid, even though it was not required by diplomatic protocol because Lapid was not opposition leader at the time.

Anyone who thinks the talk of a Macron-Lapid friendship is overblown – after all, politicians are constantly calling their foreign counterparts their friends – need only to look at the big smile on Macron’s face when Lapid got out of the gray armored Renault that brought him to the Élysée, and their warm embrace. It looked very genuine.

Then came Macron’s effusive remarks: Not only did Macron say Israelis are lucky to have Lapid, but he called the prime minister “Dear Yair” and his friend multiple times. He said Lapid is someone who has the personal strengths and capabilities to “make history” – yes, by making peace with the Palestinians, not the most popular area for the Israeli electorate now, but it was clearly high praise from a European leader to an Israeli one.

“I have the deep and intimate conviction that you have all the resources within you to lead your country and beyond,” Macron said.

“I have the deep and intimate conviction that you have all the resources within you to lead your country and beyond.”

Emmanuel Macron

Lapid also avoided some of the political pitfalls of prime ministerial travel by making the visit to Paris very short and therefore very cheap. His entourage took a chartered El Al plane, in keeping with Lapid’s argument that even if the government has spent hundreds of millions of shekels on a prime ministerial jet, each individual flight on the “Wing of Zion” costs more than renting a commercial plane. Upon landing in Paris on Tuesday afternoon, the convoy drove past the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées without stopping to partake in any shopping or croissants. Lapid went straight to the Élysée for his meeting with Macron, then to the Israeli Embassy nearby to brief Israeli journalists who waited, eating kosher sandwiches, during the closed-door part of the meeting. After that, the delegation went straight back to Charles de Gaulle Airport, for a total of about six hours in France.

AS FAR AS the substance of the trip was concerned, the two major topics on the agenda were Iran and Lebanon.

With Hezbollah drones targeting Israel’s Karish gas rig, Lapid and his team hoped to appeal to Macron to use some of his influence on Beirut to get the government – which includes the Iran-backed terrorist group – to rein them in so that maritime border negotiations can continue.

Macron’s public statement corresponded well with that goal. The French president said that he is committed to continuing efforts to help Lebanon recover from its economic and political collapse.

“I would like to mention the negotiations on the maritime border with Israel,” Macron said. “We must avoid any action of any kind that would jeopardize the ongoing process. Both countries have an interest in reaching an agreement that will allow the exploitation of energy resources for the benefit of both peoples. France is already contributing and is ready to contribute more.”

After the meeting, Lapid said the French are “dissatisfied” with Hezbollah threatening the negotiation process. Paris had not gotten involved previously, because US Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein was leading the negotiations, and Lapid had nothing bad to say about his efforts, but said now is the time for France to make its voice heard, as well.

Lapid showed Macron intelligence about Hezbollah harming not only Lebanon’s, but France’s, interests. France, Lapid pointed out, has a vested interest in Lebanon being able to begin gas exploration in its waters, because Total, a company partly owned by the French government, has the license.

When it comes to Iran, France is important as one of the parties to the negotiations to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. As is the case with all of Israel’s Western allies these days, they agree that the Iranian nuclear threat must be stopped, not how to do that. The public messages were markedly different.

“I would like to reiterate our determination to bring negotiations on a return to compliance with the JCPOA to a successful conclusion as soon as possible,” Macron said. “We agree with Israel that this agreement will not be sufficient to contain Iran’s destabilizing activities, but I remain more convinced than ever that an Iran on the nuclear threshold could carry out these activities in a more dangerous manner. We must therefore defend this agreement... and complement it with even stronger negotiations on ballistic and regional activities.”

Macron noted that “Iran still refuses to seize the opportunity offered to it,” but said “we will continue... all efforts to try to bring Iran to its senses.”

Lapid referred to remarks Macron made in 2018, after the US left the JCPOA, calling for a new, stronger deal.

Such a deal must be “more efficient and better defined, a deal with no expiration date, a deal with coordinated international pressure that would prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state,” Lapid said. “You were right then, and you are even more right today. The current situation cannot continue as it is.”

Following their meeting, Lapid said that – contrary to what they continue to say in public – “the Americans and Europeans feel there won’t be an agreement.

“If there isn’t an agreement, we need something else,” Lapid said, “and if the Iranians don’t return to this agreement, then nothing will happen unless there is a credible military threat.”

Israel has been asking its Western allies for something to which none of them have agreed – that is, not since the Trump administration – to invoke snapback sanctions, the reinstatement of the sanctions on Iran that preceded the 2015 deal, because of its violations.

“Our stance is that the conditions were met long ago,” Lapid said. “Iranians violated the deal so many times. Just look at the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Directors decision [last month]; 22 countries said so.

“I have been telling the French, the Americans, everyone in the last two weeks that it’s time for snapback,” he stated.

Lapid has said more than once, including following his meeting with Macron, that France and the UK are very sympathetic to Israel’s position when it comes to Iran talks, but that has yet to be reflected publicly.

At the same time, Macron said the JCPOA is not enough and more needs to be done to restrain Iran, which is positive as far as Israel is concerned.

In addition to the central topics of the visit, Lapid and Macron discussed expanded defense cooperation between their countries. The prime minister said that France is especially interested in Israel’s cybersecurity capabilities, which is notable since Morocco hacked Macron’s phone using Israeli cyber company NSO’s Pegasus software, leading to a short-lived diplomatic crisis last year.

Between Macron’s unreserved praise and affection for Lapid, and a diplomatic meeting that seemed to go off without a hitch, Lapid could not have asked for a better first trip heading into an election period.

After former US president Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian President Narendra Modi played a prominent role in the 2019 Likud campaign, get ready for Macron to be front and center for Yesh Atid.