By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org
The European Leadership Network (ELNET)—a non-governmental, non-partisan organization founded by European, Israeli, and American leaders in 2007—works to improve strategic relations between Israel and European Union countries. With current activity and presence primarily in Germany, France, Spain, and Poland, as well as an office opening near the seat of the EU and NATO in Brussels in the near future, ELNET has hosted more than 50 European delegations of parliament members, top government officials, and other European policy leaders to Israel. ELNET has also held more than 20 strategic meetings in Europe, and has engaged more than 500 participants in its effort to enhance European-Israeli understanding and cooperation on a wide variety of fields.
JNS.org interviewed ELNET’s co-founder, Raanan Eliaz, and the U.S.-based national executive director of Friends of the European Leadership Network (FELNET), Lee Rosenblum. Below, they discuss the current state of Europe’s relationship with Israel and the significance of ELNET’s work.
JNS: How was ELNET founded and what is the organization’s primary purpose?
Eliaz: Following the second Palestinian intifada and the collapse of the Oslo peace process, I experienced first-hand in Belgium the lack of an organized and effective pro-Israel movement in Europe. I worked for several years in Washington, DC, for AIPAC, the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, and the Hudson Institute, always dealing with Europe-Israel ties. Later, I was in charge of Europe and NATO at the NSC (National Security Council) at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. In all these institutions…I saw how the Israelis are dealing with Europe, what exists, but also what is missing in the strategic relationship between the EU and key countries in Europe and Israel. This combined experience influenced me to come up with the idea of ELNET. I recruited partners and ELNET was established in 2007.
Rosenblum: Essentially, it is our belief that the world has changed. The U.S. is no longer the single superpower in the world. When you take a look at the agencies that affect policies like the U.N., the EU, or NATO, you see that when it comes to international policy [the U.S. is] just a single vote. Given that the EU is the single-largest trading partner of Israel, given the proximity of Europe to the Middle East as compared to the U.S., we feel that it is equally important for there to be significant relations between the member states of the EU and Israel.
It’s interesting to note that 80-85 percent of [U.S. Congress members have] been to Israel, but if you go to France or Germany or Poland, I think on average of maybe 10-13 percent of their parliament [members], or senior policy makers and leaders, have been to Israel. That’s one of the things that we provide for them in the form of delegations [to Israel].”
What are some examples of ELNET’s recent work and successes?
Eliaz: ELNET creates for the first time in these countries a local power base of pro-Israel citizens who are capable and are well-equipped to communicate directly with elected officials, policy makers, and leaders of opinion. ELNET also hosts informal strategic discussions between top leaders from Israel and Europe that help create better policies towards each other.
Rosenblum: When we bring delegations [to Israel], we give [participants] the opportunity to tour and see Israel, [but] we give them a very broad view of things.
At a German Bundestag Delegation to Israel held last June headed by Dr. Gregor Gysi of the Die Linke (The Left) party, we brought the German delegation to the Knesset…The very next day we took them to Ramallah and the main office of the Palestinian Authority where we had meetings set up with the Vice Prime Minister of the PA, with 5 Palestinian ministers, and…with the Vatican’s Liaison priest to Gaza and Ramallah for Christians.
One of the ways I always gauge success is the fact that 30 percent of all the money we raise is now raised in Europe, which is a tremendous achievement and a tremendous testament to our work.
Most recently you may also have heard about the incident that happened with [Jewish-American reggae star) Matisyahu…[who] was going to appear at a festival in Spain. He was the only performer that was asked by the promoters to sign a document condoning BDS. He would not sign it and as a result [his performance was] cancelled. It turns out that our West Coast director is a friend of Matisyahu, [who] contacted him and asked if there is something we can do. While we found him an alternate place to play on the same date, our affiliate in Spain went to various ambassadors and put pressure on the promoters…[who then] decided to re-invite Matisyahu to play. Bravely, he decided to go back to the original venue and the rest is history.
What are the particular challenges or issues that exist in Europe, and specifically in the countries where ELNET is active, when it comes to Israel?
Eliaz: [The migrant crisis and the growth of the Muslim population of Europe] affect what we do because we are interested in that European leaders, our primary audience, take this into account when they make policies. Most of the migrants do not care about Israel and simply want to become citizens of their new countries. There is a local minority in some countries, France for example, that is violent and extreme. When integration fails most dramatically is where these countries have the most tension, and one of the ways we see this is violence against Jews, but not only. Violence in France is not targeting Jews only or Jews primarily. It is targeting the values of the (French) Republic. We need to remember that.
Most of the people we are engaging are not Jewish. Israel is not an issue that belongs only to the Jews in these countries, but it’s a matter of values and democratic principles. There is also a positive impact of this issue because this crisis helps Europeans understand Israel better in some cases.
[In France] the challenge comes at the leadership level. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius [recently issued some] initiatives that are questionable (such as the French U.N. request to impose a deadline on the Israelis and Palestinians, and the initiative to have an international presence in the Temple Mount).
[Germany has] a very unique history and a unique commitment to Israel (due to the history of the Holocaust), and is one of the most helpful partners in some areas [with Israel], for example in security and defense exchange. Younger Germans who are already in ministerial positions look at the past differently. Our agenda in Germany is to talk and speak about the present and future, and bring to the surface those interests that connect Germany and Israel now and tomorrow.
[Upcoming elections in Spain could lead to a] dramatic shift in the country. And there is a constant challenge to keep Israel a neutral issue [in Spain]. We are making a constant effort to keep the socialist leadership in Spain educated about our issues. In fact, we just had a delegation of Spanish center-left leadership, they almost never come without us.
Rosenblum: Many people look at Poland as being severely anti-Semitic…[but] I am more comfortable wearing a kippah while walking down the streets of Warsaw than I would be walking down certain streets in Paris. [Poland is also] the only European country where every single political party is pro-Israel. There’s no question that Poland is a friend to Israel. Some might say is that part of that friendship with Israel is predicated on the fact that Poland knows that it’s in its best interest because the U.S. and Israel are strategic allies, [because] Poland is very concerned about…Ukraine, Russia, and Vladimir Putin. This is their big nightmare, and what we’ve been able to do for Poland is set up strategic dialogs specifically on the areas of strategic defense, counterterrorism, high-tech, and safety issues.
What does the future hold for ELNET and what should Americans understand about the relationship between Europe and Israel?
Eliaz: Looking five to eight years down the road, ELNET will continue to build its network in Europe, have a pan-European network that can impact positively the relationship between Europe and Israel, and also coordinate at some point with America. The triangle of the U.S., Europe, and Israel shouldn’t be forgotten and continues to be the most important triangle to impact Israel’s immediate threats.
Rosenblum: The toughest challenge we face in the U.S. is that for the most part Europe is not on the minds of American Jewish people. The reason that specifically American Jews should be concerned about our work in Europe is because Europe represents a more significant force to Israel. Fifty or sixty years ago, there was no clear voice for Jewish Americans to approach leaders and to push for support for Israel. This sort of thing does not exist in [some European countries] at all. We are where nobody else is. We have to do everything we can to insure that Israel’s standing in the global community is strong. The alternative is to do nothing.
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