Europe’s complex relationship with Israel is evolving again. The coming centenary of the Balfour Declaration—in which Britain expressed support for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people—will serve as a reminder that the Zionist endeavor has always pressed against sensitive nerves in Europe. Deep divergences endure over Israel in European minds: some consider it an outpost of Western civilization and a justified expression of Jewish self-determination, others an embarrassing colonial hangover.
But Europe is changing, and so is Israel. On the one hand, the economic, security, and identity crisis in Europe is creating new incentives for cooperation with Israel, but on the other, Israel’s rightward shift is a source of increasing friction.
In the period since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election in 2009, figures on the Israeli center and left have tended to speak gloomily about the relationship. Netanyahu’s policies have aggravated many European leaders, and in some parts of Europe helped mainstream a grassroots Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to ostracize Israel in civil society and undermine the very legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish nation state. “Europe,” as an opinion column in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it recently, “is beginning to tire of Israel.”
Yet the outlook for the relationship is at worst a mixed one. Israel’s economic and security ties with European states are strong. Meanwhile, a heightened fear of Islamist extremism strengthens the argument of those European leaders who believe they share common enemies with Israel, because they share common values.
The roots of the perceived decline in Israeli–European ties lie in the deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the years after 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu became Israeli prime minister. By 2012, the Palestinians, deeply distrustful of Netanyahu and facing a crisis of internal legitimacy, abandoned negotiations with Israel in favor of seeking international recognition, which culminated in Palestine’s acceptance as a non-member state by the UN.
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