For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.
This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.
But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.
For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.
Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.
Similarly, a relatively small group of committed pro-Israel Christians in the Dutch parliament managed to mobilize support last month for a resolution rejecting labeling requirements for products made in the disputed Israeli territories (Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights and parts of Jerusalem). The motion, which passed 82-68, correctly deemed these rules discriminatory as long as they don’t apply equally to all disputed territory worldwide.
Also last week, a majority of the Norwegian parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense demanded that the government cut funding to the Palestinian Authority over incitement in school textbooks. And last month, the Dutch government actually cut aid to the P.A. over its practice of paying salaries to terrorists. In both cases, credit belongs to small Israeli organizations that have tirelessly lobbied European parliaments on these issues (Palestinian Media Watch on pay-to-slay and IMPACT-se on student textbooks).
This same principle, incidentally, applies in parts of America where Israel is losing ground, like the Democratic Party. Last month, for instance, anti-Israel activists managed to get several anti-Israel motions onto the agenda of the California Democratic Party convention. But several organizations, including a new group called Democratic Majority for Israel, fought back. Starting with a committed base of around one-third of the delegates, it ultimately managed to persuade almost two-thirds to vote against the resolutions, even though California—one of the most left-wing states in the union—would seemingly be friendly ground for the anti-Israel left.
The problem with traditional diplomacy is that it generally focuses on high-level officials, both elected politicians and civil servants. These are people with zero incentive to rock the boat on Israel’s behalf because they would rather spend their political capital on issues that most of their countrymen (and they themselves) actually care about, which rarely include Israel and the Palestinians. And in Europe, not rocking the boat means adhering to the anti-Israel consensus that has long dominated the E.U. Thus while this kind of diplomacy remains essential for numerous issues, it often isn’t effective at generating change.
Yet precisely because senior officialdom often doesn’t care much about Israel, committed activists can move the needle by lobbying members of parliament, joining the boards of organizations and so forth, thereby generating noise that makes it seem like people care about this issue. That won’t immediately produce change at the governmental level; in Holland, for instance, the government said it would ignore parliament’s position on product labeling. But it’s a necessary first step.
Pro-Palestinian activists have long understood this, but pro-Israel activists are only now belatedly playing catch-up. And while much of the work obviously has to be done by local activists, Israel could facilitate the effort by identifying and actively engaging with groups that are potentially persuadable to pro-Israel activism.
Sometimes these will be groups more identified with the right, like religious Christians and European nationalists. Other times they will be groups identified with the left: In both Germany and Austria, the Green Party’s youth wings have played active roles in fighting BDS. But either way, the goal should be to find potentially sympathetic organizations that could be spurred to pro-Israel activism through engagement.
When a government open to pro-Israel positions gets elected, Israel should obviously try to leverage the opportunity through traditional diplomacy. But by engaging with parliamentarians and grassroots groups in an effort to foster pro-Israel activism, it can increase the likelihood of naturally sympathetic governments adopting pro-Israel policies and reduce the likelihood of naturally unsympathetic governments adopting anti-Israel ones.
For too long, Israel’s attitude towards European diplomacy has been top-down. It’s long past time for it to start investing more in bottom-up efforts.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.
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