Transcending activism to become an effective, pro-Israel EU advocate

Regrettably, a lack of progress regarding the Middle East peace process has led many voices within the European Union to lay blame solely on Israel—to the point of accusing it of consciously blocking negotiations.

European Union flags in front of the European Commission building in Brussels. Credit: Amio Cajander via Wikimedia Commons.
European Union flags in front of the European Commission building in Brussels. Credit: Amio Cajander via Wikimedia Commons.
Nuno Wahnon Martins, Raya Kalenova and Johanan Seynave

Decision-making at the E.U. level is understandably complex. Although E.U. action is often (mis)understood as the 28 member states “acting in unison,” this is far from the whole story. In practice, E.U. institutions are diffuse. The different national interests have to be aggregated together with the interests of the different E.U. institutions, even when some of these are mutually conflicting.

Consequently, pro-Israel advocacy in the European Union must be comprehensive: advocating for Israel on the core issues, but also being constantly on the look for new areas of possible cooperation.

Moreover, advocating effectively for Israel needs to take into account both the dynamics between stakeholders in the E.U. institutions and the influence of outside actors simultaneously advocating to delegitimise Israel, such as the BDS movement and its allies.

The E.U. decision-making process is very much driven by the politics of compromise. The principle of compromise is intended to give strength and unity to any given issue. All of these actors influence one another in an intricate system of checks and balances. Hence, an issue will be easy to compromise on if the different interests of stakeholders do not overlap. Such an issue will tend to go forward as a unified position.

Regarding foreign policy, advocates for Israel need to realize that although the European Union may seem “moralizing” or “aloof” at times, this stance is in itself a platform to advance certain agendas both within and outside the agency.

Within the European Union, different institutions will have different mind-sets. Following the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament (E.P.) has grown more relevant in many areas. In addition, as the directly elected representation of European citizens, it tends to enjoy more political legitimacy than the other institutions. With its intrinsically pluralistic mind-set, the E.P. can be fruitful ground for finding principled and motivated allies and for pushing forward on certain issues within its remit.

Conversely, the European External Action Service (EEAS), a service tasked with coordinating between the E.U. institutions on foreign affairs, could be regarded as stifling. With regard to Israel, the EEAS is very much focused on the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), and pushes the other institutions and the member states into following this position. This focus is at the same time sincere, and yet often lacking in balance and perspective in the search for solutions.

The MEPP is so prominent on the E.U. agenda because from an internal E.U. perspective the two-state solution is an issue on which, as stated above, it is very easy to reach a compromise. This is because E.U. stakeholders have little to no concessions to make on this issue. In other words, there is no skin in the game. Advocacy strategies need to adapt to this reality.

Regrettably, the lack of progress in the MEPP has led many voices within the European Union to lay blame solely on Israel—to the point of accusing it of consciously blocking negotiations. This discourse, which misappropriates ideas from postmodernism and post-colonialism, is largely driven by outside actors, such as the BDS movement and its allies. Although these narratives have been slowly seeping into European public discourse, within E.U. institutions, they are voiced by a small, but rowdy minority.

As for these advocacy movements, it would be more accurate to describe them as anti-Israel advocacy, rather than pro-Palestinian advocacy. However, the fact is that these radical firebrands opposing dialogue and favoring confrontational tactics have crowded out more moderate pro-Palestinian voices.

Therefore, the worst thing for pro-Israel advocates in the European Union to do is to adopt the same politics of confrontation as these so-called pro-Palestinian advocates—that is, using an accusatory tone and recycling the same old stale messages. These tactics are loud, but they are largely ineffective.

Since the main task of E.U. advocacy is to pitch ideas to the center, an approach based on pointing the finger and offering nothing new to the debate is tone-deaf to its mechanics and risks alienating good partnerships. It is ultimately counterproductive.

In order to counteract this trend, and push effectively for enhanced cooperation between Israel and the European Union, pro-Israel advocacy needs to be better than this. There are so many fields, such as trade, research, energy, and transportation, where cooperation can and should be expanded.

First, it is crucial to know the situation on the ground to understand the dynamics of the E.U. decision-making process and to identify the relevant partners and stakeholders who will bring an initiative to fruition. This legwork is the cornerstone of effective advocacy.

Second, we need to take the narrative back from those who seek to delegitimise, showing that in all of these fields, Israel is a reliable partner where cooperation can and should be strengthened to the mutual benefit of all involved.

Looking for areas of cooperation does not mean that one should not talk about the conflict. The conflict will always play some role in the agenda, but the same principle of taking back the narrative applies.

Finally, we have to be proactive, not reactive. This entails being creative, and on the lookout for new ideas and new areas of cooperation. These should ideally take place in specialized policy fields and with the relevant stakeholders.

This is the difference between being a pro-Israel activist and an effective pro-Israel advocate.

The authors will be attending this week’s GC4I Conference being hosted by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy in Jerusalem. GC4I will discuss strategies, insights and activities regarding the BDS and delegitimization movements acting against the State of Israel.

Nuno Wahnon Martins is director of E.U. Affairs at the European Jewish Congress. Raya Kalenova is executive vice president & CEO of the EJC. Johanan Seynave is a political analyst at the EJC.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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