(January 26, 2023 / JNS) After several years of delays due to disagreements on what the Europeans call West Bank settlements, the E.U.-Israel Association Council met in Brussels on Oct. 3, with Israel represented by the so-called “change government” of then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
Founded in 1995 and beginning full-scale operation in 2000, the group hadn’t met since 2012 for many reasons, including the pandemic and several internal crises both within the European bloc and in Israel. Yet a major reason for the lack of meetings—the Palestinian issue—could very well soon rear its head again.
With the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the premiership, the new government in Jerusalem has vowed to massively expand Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and has taken an uncompromising stance on Iran. Will a freeze in ties between Jerusalem and Brussels once again be the norm?
Dr. Emmanuel Navon, the CEO of the European Leadership Network-Israel (ELNET), doesn’t think that is necessarily the case.
“Many, if not most, of the European countries abstained, were absent, or voted against” the recent resolution in the United Nations to have the International Court of Justice issue an advisory opinion on Israeli policy in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem, Navon told JNS. “We should look at voting patterns, because there is a change in how these countries have voted.”
He was quick to stress, however, that many European countries still signed on to a letter asking Israel to end its sanctions on the Palestinian Authority leadership, which were imposed in response to the P.A.’s push for the U.N. resolution.
“On the one hand, they see the resolution in the General Assembly as not helpful or useful, but that doesn’t mean that they agree with the decision to withhold money that ultimately belongs to the P.A,” Navon said.
A warning shot
Dr. Josef Olmert is a senior fellow at the Palm Beach Center for Democracy and Policy Research, and a former Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator. He is also a professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of South Carolina.
“The initial vote [on the resolution regarding the International Court of Justice] was not bad at all,” he told JNS. “The second vote was, and I will call it a warning shot to the new government [in Jerusalem]. The problem with the Europeans always has been with the E.U. officialdom, which is clearly anti-Israel–such as [E.U. foreign policy chief] Josep Borell.”
Olmert believes that certain anti-Israel countries within the bloc are using the new government as an excuse to be hostile to Jerusalem. At the same time, he said, “the new government will be tested on its actions, not necessarily the initial early statements. The E.U. countries that are more pro-Israel won’t change their policies, but will be keeping a close eye on the new government, for sure.”
It is too soon to say whether the E.U.-Israel Association Council will indeed proceed with the warming of ties. Navon said that the previous Israeli government was eager to restore ties with countries in the bloc beyond the continent’s eastern nations that have long been more conservative and friendly with Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has made no statements on his policy towards Europe. He has been too busy focusing on expanding the Abraham Accords, balancing settlement policy between Likud and the nationalist Religious Zionism Party, and dealing with judicial reform after being forced to fire Aryeh Deri, a minister from the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas Party who once was jailed for corruption.
A poke in the eye
However, the Israeli director of the Tikvah Fund, a conservative Jewish think tank, recently met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“I think this was a poke in the eye to the E.U.,” said Navon. “I think it could be a sign the new government is pursuing a different policy” that is returning to mainly championing ties with the more conservative southeastern countries of Europe.
Navon added that the E.U. is also concerned about Israel because “most European countries expect Israel to have a clearer stance against Russia, to be completely onboard with supporting Ukraine. One of the first calls made by the new Israeli Foreign Minister [Eli Cohen] was to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which perhaps was a mistake.”
Navon believes that Netanyahu’s desire to stay quiet on the Russo-Ukrainian War is creating a degree of concern in Brussels. At the same time, he doesn’t think it’s necessarily time to be concerned about deteriorating ties between Jerusalem and Brussels.
Pointing to the decision of the European Union to massively sanction Iran and of the European Parliament to recommend listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror organization, Navon believes “diplomacy works many times, and when Israel works with its European partners, it leads to results. This is not a black-and-white issue where the E.U. is pro-Israel or anti-Israel. This shows that there is a maintenance of the partnership between us despite any disagreements.”
Olmert, however, doesn’t think the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine factors into Israel’s relationship with the E.U.
“This is an achievement for Israel by default,” he noted. “Iran is losing legitimacy and support from the West by assisting Russia. Israel’s issues with the E.U. will stem from the Palestinian issue, such as whether or not to demolish the Khan al-Amar Bedouin hamlet” outside Jerusalem.
Olmert notes, however, that the Jewish state has very strong relations with E.U. member-states on the individual level, with a lot of mutual interests and goals on cooperation regarding technology and science. “Doomsday is not behind the door,” he told JNS. “The sky is not falling.”
Ultimately, the policymakers in Europe and Israel will have to decide whether or not they let Palestinians dictate their level of cooperation. But if anything can be learned from this new fraught era, it is that strong leadership and common values generally persevere in the face of multiple challenges.
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