While Jerusalem has insisted that the focus remain on Holocaust remembrance event, Tehran, the Palestinians and other hot topics will be discussed on the sidelines
The messaging emanating from Israel ahead of this week’s Fifth World Holocaust Forum was until Sunday uncharacteristically uniform. That is, as at least 46 delegations from across the globe begin descending on Jerusalem, Israeli leaders have insisted that the focus remain on the summit’s central themes of “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Anti-Semitism.”
Then came the weekly cabinet meeting – which, in characteristic fashion, opened with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shining a spotlight on Iran.
“I will discuss Iran, the various developments in the region and strengthening ties between [Israel and other] countries,” Netanyahu said ahead of expected meetings this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and US Vice President Mike Pence.
Central to these discussions will be the decision last week by Britain, France and Germany to trigger the 2015 nuclear deal’s dispute resolution mechanism in response to Iranian violations. It is no coincidence that Netanyahu has homed in on Macron as cracks in Europe’s once-united armor seemingly appear.
Indeed, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has left open the possibility of pursuing what he coined “the Trump deal.” And while tensions between Washington and Tehran reached a near-tipping point following the January 3 assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, the US president has consistently maintained that his goal is to use economic sanctions to pressure the mullahs back to the nuclear negotiating table.
“Macron is the Western leader [spearheading] the attempt to find some middle ground between Trump and Iran. He wants to keep the nuclear deal alive in the absence of the US, but appears to agree that there should be changes pertaining to issues such as Tehran’s ballistic missile program and regional interventionism,” Daniel Shek, formerly Israel’s ambassador to France, told The Media Line.
“To date, Macron has not been entirely successful given Trump’s disapproval of the deal [which he withdrew the US from in May 2018] and the heightened [military] tensions in the Middle East. But there is still no reason for him to break away from the EU, as he represents well Brussels’ position and, I might add, that of the other parties, Russia [and China].
“While the endgame is unknown,” Shek continued, “Israel has a stake in the matter and there is no reason why Netanyahu and Macron, as friendly leaders, should not discuss it. That said, and with all due respect, I am not sure Israel [has the leverage to] apply pressure on a country like France.”
Another hot topic will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the Trump Administration’s “peace team” – led by Jared Kushner and chief negotiator Avi Berkowitz – is expected to meet in Jerusalem with both Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White list is currently leading in the polls ahead of the March 2 national elections. This comes on the heels of reports that President Trump will decide within days whether to release his long-delayed Middle East peace plan prior to the Israeli vote.
Many remain skeptical that a White House initiative could lead to a breakthrough given the political instability in Israel and considering that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has given no public indication that he is prepared to end a boycott imposed on the US administration in the wake of its recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital.
Dr. Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister and an architect of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords, believes that President Trump would only release his plan on the “doorstep” of an Israeli election for one reason: that is, to benefit Netanyahu. Even so, he doubts such a move could help the Israeli prime minister “as the proposal would necessarily talk about partitioning the land [in the West Bank], which the Right in Israel rejects out of hand.”
Accordingly, Beilin would be “quite surprised” if Trump gives the go-ahead. “If the whole idea is to outline a basis for negotiations that will automatically be rejected by Abbas, then this will be obvious,” he said, adding that “the Israeli voter is too sophisticated [not to read through this].”
Largely papered over by these issues is the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland, which is playing out on the backdrop of this week’s forum. Polish President Andrzej Duda declined an invitation to attend Thursday’s commemoration after his request to address the ceremony was turned down and amid a dispute with Russia over alleged World War II revisionism.
In this respect, Putin recently accused the Polish resistance of perpetrating massacres of Jews during the Nazi occupation, and last month was quoted by media describing the Polish ambassador to Hitler’s Berlin as “scum and an anti-Semitic pig.” Those comments, in turn, followed the European Union Parliament’s passage of a resolution blaming the outbreak of World War II on both Nazi Germany and the former USSR.
The spat has pushed Israel into a position somewhere between a rock and a hard place. Besides the United States, Jerusalem’s anti-Iran strategy depends on no other country more than Russia. As the major power broker in Syria, Putin has turned a blind eye to hundreds, if not thousands, of Israeli cross-border strikes against Iranian assets. For the Jewish state, the importance of preventing the Islamic Republic from establishing permanent military infrastructure in Syria – and so inhibit the creation of something akin to Hizbullah in Lebanon – cannot be overstated.
On the flip side, Israel views Poland – a member of the Visegrád bloc of Eastern European countries that includes Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – as a key ally and bulwark against Brussels’ perceived pro-Iranian and pro-Palestinian policies. Nevertheless, the bilateral relationship has been shaky since Poland’s parliament in early 2018 criminalized accusations of complicity with the Nazis. After protestations from Jerusalem, a watered-down version of the bill was passed and this temporarily eased tensions.
Then, a day after being appointed almost exactly one year ago, Israel’s foreign minister, referencing a past Israeli prime minister, said that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” Bad feelings have persisted in Warsaw.
“Poland has a nationalist government that is basically trying to deny the country’s role in the Holocaust. But we know that despite having been victims of German atrocities, there are, in fact, many Poles that cooperated in the killing of Jews,” Dr. Emmanuel Navon, a lecturer in international relations at Tel Aviv University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line.
“Even so, Israel needs Poland in the EU to counter-balance decisions made in Brussels, and that is the bottom line,” he stressed. “Jerusalem will continue to make overtures but the question is how far the Polish government will go to try to deny any responsibility for the nation’s World War II actions. This not only applies to Poland but also to Hungary, for example.”
Meanwhile, all of this will be taking place on the backdrop of probably the biggest elephant in the room: Israel’s upcoming election. Politicians will, undoubtedly, be campaigning this week, with Netanyahu liable to take center stage.
One example is his push to secure the release from Russia of Israeli backpacker Naama Issachar. She only recently began serving a seven-plus-year sentence for intent to distribute less than 10 grams of marijuana found in her checked luggage while on a stopover in Moscow en route from India to Israel. Media have reported that Putin will pardon Issachar while in Jerusalem, which analysts believe could provide Netanyahu with an electoral boost.
Overall, though, while the optics of Netanyahu hobnobbing with global leaders may play well with his base, most agree that this week’s proceedings are unlikely to have a major effect on the vote. All indications presently point to a similar outcome of the inconclusive elections in April and September of last year; meaning that neither the Netanyahu-led Right nor Gantz-led Center-Left will be in a clear position come March 3 to form a governing coalition.
This, more than anything else, might loom large Thursday over what would normally constitute a feather in Israel’s diplomatic cap. It is, analysts note, difficult to reassure allies about any issue when Israel has been without a fully functioning government since December 2018.