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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Netanyahu Visits EU With New Wind in His Sails

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his first-ever official visit to EU headquarters on Monday with the air of someone holding the upper hand, but translating that into diplomatic progress will be a challenge, Laurence Norman writes.


Laurence Norman

BRUSSELS—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his first-ever official visit to the European Union’s capital on Monday. He brings the air of someone holding the upper hand, but translating that into diplomatic progress will be a challenge.

Mr. Netanyahu’s trip follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision Wednesday to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, underscoring the support the prime minister has in Washington. Israel enjoys good ties with Moscow and its relations with Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Arab countries, although unofficial, have rarely been better.

Europe, by contrast, remains beset with international and internal problems. Relations are chilly with Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The bloc is increasingly divided over its approach to Mr. Netanyahu and to what extent cooperation should hang on progress in stalled Palestinian peace talks.

Mr. Netanyahu listening to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after the Israeli prime minister met last July with the Visegrad countires in Budapest in July.Photo: balazs mohai/European Pressphoto Agency

Israeli officials hope this context will help them improve ties and move conversations beyond the stalled peace process onto Israel’s top concerns: curtailing Iran’s regional influence and advancing bilateral projects.

“Israel is in its best position ever to talk or to deal or to negotiate…with the EU,” said Yoaz Hendel, chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-of-center think tank in Jerusalem, and a former spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu has generally eschewed invitations to EU headquarters because of the bloc’s criticism of Israel, which he has used to rally political support at home. This time, however, he was invited here to meet with the bloc’s foreign ministers by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, who said the visit would help the two sides re-engage after a hiatus.

Regular political-level meetings of EU and Israeli officials have been frozen for the last five years because of the bloc’s concern about Israel’s approach to the peace talks. Israeli officials say Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly sought to resume talks with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini only learned of the prime minister’s visit at the last minute, officials said. She swiftly tried to take control of the process, announcing she would chair the meeting on the sidelines of a monthly gathering of EU foreign ministers. This week she also announced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would come in January to meet foreign ministers.

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While Mr. Netanyahu is facing problems at home, including a probe into corruption allegations he had denied, he has been staging a diplomatic offensive, observers say. Over the past year or so he has made visits to capitals in Africa, Latin America and Europe.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs, said in Brussels on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu’s primary goal for the trip is rallying European cooperation for limiting Iran’s role in Lebanon and Syria, above all along the Israeli-Syrian border. Israeli officials have warned that an Iranian presence near their Syria border—through proxies, military bases or key infrastructure like ports or airports—would draw an inevitable Israeli response.

Mr. Erdan said Mr. Netanyahu’s message would be that Europe could face unwanted consequences—including a fresh wave of migrants—if conflict intensifies in Syria between Israel and Iran and its proxies. Israel wants Europe to use the economic leverage it has gained since the Iran nuclear deal to press Tehran to stay out of Israel’s reach. European trade with Iran has boomed since sanctions were lifted as part of the 2015 deal.

Mr. Netanyahu is also expected to renew his call for the EU to blacklist all of Hezbollah as a terrorist group, not just what Brussels calls its military wing.

There will be some receptiveness to these points. France, Germany and Britain have increased warnings about Iran’s regional role and missile program. Under discussion are ideas such as targeted sanctions against Hezbollah officials and efforts to squeeze financial flows to Iran’s proxies.

Mr. Netanyahu has also moved deftly to cultivate friends in Europe. He made a much-noticed trip last summer to meet with leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Israel’s gas-exploration plans have won friends in Greece and Cyprus. Relations are close with the government of Britain, which is exiting the EU.

“We have to talk, we have to re-engage, to discuss,” said Mr. Linkevicius, the Lithuanian foreign minister. “Not just make press statements or discussion [points] via the media.”

Yet limits remain to Israel’s ties to the EU. Countries including France, Ireland and Sweden want any stepped-up cooperation tied to the peace process. And the bloc stands united behind the EU’s fundamental peace-process demands: a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and an end to building new settlements.

Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem announcement may have made Mr. Netanyahu’s job in Brussels harder. The EU and many member states criticized the decision, saying it could inflame tensions and undermine the peace process.

Ms. Mogherini said she had planned to discuss bilateral ties, regional affairs and peace talks with the Palestinians at Monday’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu.

“But I imagine that now the main point of conversation will be the situation in Jerusalem and the perspectives of the Middle East peace process,” she said.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com