Analysis: Mr Netanyahu’s London visit could be a summer break he would prefer not to take

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 20, 2009

Binyamin Netanyahu is hardly looking forward to his visit to Britain next week. Relations between the two governments are going through a rocky period and Israel does not consider Gordon Brown a critical partner given his current political situation.

The meetings at Downing Street and the Foreign Office will have little diplomatic value. They will consist mainly of lectures by the hosts on the evils of settlements and attempts by Mr Netanyahu — mostly unsuccessful —to move the debate on to the Iranian threat.

Nor will the visit have much PR value. Bibi has always preferred giving interviews to American media, which gives him an easier ride. Anyway, if wooing the British press was so important, he could have summoned them to meet him in Jerusalem.

And unlike his last stay in August three years ago, during which he and wife Sarah allegedly managed to accumulate almost £20,000 in hotel, restaurant and entertainment bills in just one week, this visit will be fleeting, and security considerations will not allow him to dine out.

So why is he coming?

There is, of course, the official reason, the need to keep up Israel’s relations with Europe. That is why he was in Paris two months ago, and after London he will be continuing to Berlin. But Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem say, off the record, that as things currently stand it would have made more sense to give Britain a miss this year and wait for the new government when it came along.

But the most important meeting Mr Netanyahu will have in London will not be with Gordon Brown. Most of the preparation will concern the meeting with the retired American senator George Mitchell, who is using London as a convenient half-way point between Israel and Washington.

An agreement over a temporary freeze on settlement activity may be finalised in the Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting but, whatever the outcome, they are going to see each other on neutral territory. There are major reasons why neither of these men want to meet each other in their own capitals.

Another visit by Israel’s prime minister to Washington, so soon after the last botched one, would mean bringing all the differences between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama to the fore again. Mr Mitchell does not want to come to Jerusalem too often, as that would mean meeting Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the man American diplomats try to avoid — Mr Mitchell visited Jerusalem two weeks ago while Mr Lieberman was away.

For that reason, Defence Minister Ehud Barak also flew to London last month to see Mr Mitchell.

So Mr Brown and Mr Miliband get another chance to play on the stage of MidEast diplomacy, despite having little real influence there, and Mr Netanyahu, who still has not succeeded in building a meaningful dialogue with the White House, is forced to travel to London — for a summer break he would prefer not to take.

Last updated: 11:39am, August 20 2009