September 23, 2019

Israel-Iran: The European Theater

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Europe on June 4 with only two items on his agenda — or so he said. The two were “Iran and Iran.” And you must wonder about the meetings he was about to have with the leaders of Germany, France and Great Britain, the three key European powers. You must wonder about Netanyahu’s expectations — what can he possibly tell these leaders that they don’t already know? You must wonder about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May — are they coming to these meetings with an open mind, expecting to hear something they don’t already know? 

A fly on the wall in the rooms where these meetings take place — if it has the ability to dissect the talks — would see that there are three dimensions to the conversation. 

One: the factual arena. The Europeans do not dispute most of the facts advanced by Israel. The intel they see, including intel shared by Israel, is hard to argue with. Netanyahu might have shown them more details; Israel acquired a plethora of new information and perhaps not all of it was shared with the public after the much-publicized “secret files” press conference in late April. 

Two: the analysis that is based on these facts. That is, an assessment of where Iran is going, and what its leadership’s intentions are. On these issues, there is disagreement between Israel and some of the Europeans, and one never knows which of these differing views is a result of biases. Israel is biased because it has more to lose and hence is more prone to interpret every data on Iranian moves in the strictest way. Europe is biased because it does not want new information to disrupt its relatively cozy relations with Iran. 

Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip was designed to show Europe that it matters, that Israel values its input and sees it as an important player.

Three: the remedy proposed based on the facts and the analysis. Israel would like Europe to support harsher measures against Iran. The Europeans are reluctant to tickle the Islamic Republic, perhaps because of the aforementioned economic coziness, or perhaps because they are afraid of Iranian retaliation, or perhaps because they truly believe that their current policy is the best way to deal with Iran. 

Each of these dimensions must be dealt with in a high-profile meeting. Netanyahu needed to establish the facts, make the case for his country’s analysis, then move to propose a remedy that the Europeans can swallow. It must be a remedy that doesn’t put them at too much risk — compounded by the implied warning that the current track means trouble, not only for Israel, but for them. The Europeans will not lift a finger unless they are convinced that they have a dog in this fight against Iranian expansionism. Iran is intimidating; it is remote; it is a tempting economic partner; it annoys the Americans —  Europeans often respond to U.S. annoyance with a certain, if well hidden, delight. If you live in France or Germany, you need a strong reason to pick a fight with it.

Netanyahu meets Europe when everybody is aware that he just had scored a win in the last battle — a battle against Iran but also against Europe. The U.S., in spite of EU reservations, pulled out of the Iran deal. Netanyahu played a role in prompting this decision. Still, he did not go to Europe to brag about his achievement and further annoy his hosts. In fact, his trip was designed to show Europe that it matters, that Israel values its input and sees it as an important player. Netanyahu, as he was making his case, was essentially pleading with the Europeans not to take the wrong path only because they are displeased with recent U.S. moves (and Israel’s endorsement of it). 

There currently is a battle between Israel and Iran. It is a battle for Europe. Iran is hanging onto this thread, hoping that the Europeans will agree to counter U.S. moves. Israel is telling Europe: Our disagreements concerning the nuclear deal is not a good enough reason to throw Iran a lifeline. Not when Iran is on the ground. Not when the prospect of real change again seems realistic.

Is it realistic though? The data was presented to these leaders. Israel’s analysis was shared with them. Ideas for possible action were mentioned. And as difficult as it is to admit — Israel’s level of trust in Europe in not high — their decision could truly matter.  n

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at