Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, February 2016. 

Where Israel and Europe Go From Here

Why Economic and Strategic Cooperation Have Never Been Better

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.

RISING TENSIONS?

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. That move divided EU members, but Israel’s retaliation—new housing plans for the E1 area east of Jerusalem, which Palestinians argue is vital for the contiguity of a future Palestinian state—managed to unite them in opposition. In July 2013, the European Commission issued guidance to more explicitly ensure that EU agreements would not apply to the occupied territories. An EU move to label consumer products from Israeli settlements followed.

The mood worsened in 2014, during a renewed conflict between Israel and Hamas. European cities filled with anti-Israel demonstrators: thousands in Berlin and Paris, and tens of thousands in London. The conflict also triggered a surge in anti-Semitism across Europe—recorded incidents doubled in Britain and France compared to the previous year. This increase, and the shootings of Jews by Islamist extremists in Belgium, Denmark, and France, led Netanyahu to call on European Jews to come “home” to Israel to escape “terrible anti-Semitism,” a call that upset French and German leaders keen to reassure their Jewish citizens.

In late 2014, the parliaments of France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Parliament, passed motions in support of extending recognition to a Palestinian state, and Sweden broke ranks with its EU partners by doing so.

Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government’s illiberal legislative initiatives, including one that marginalized foreign-funded left-wing and human rights NGOs, led the EU to warn Israel that it risked undermining its democratic character.

Netanyahu’s reelection in 2015 with a narrower right-wing coalition apparently uninterested in a Palestinian state foretold worse to come. In the wake of US President Donald Trump’s election, key Israeli government coalition partner Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, argued that Israel should declare that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” Netanyahu himself quietly dropped the phrase “two state solution” from his lexicon.

While the EU repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to the two-state solution and its concerns for its viability, Netanyahu barely disguised his view of Europe as strategically irrelevant and irredeemably hostile. “It seems that too many in Europe, on whose soil six million Jews were slaughtered, have learned nothing,” he declared at the end of 2014, following an EU court decision that Hamas should be removed from the EU’s list of proscribed terrorist organizations.

THE ROOTS OF EUROPEAN DISILLUSIONMENT

In Western Europe, public disillusionment with Israel long predates Netanyahu. Surveys show that sympathy for Israel began declining in the 1970s. Once widely admired as a beacon of social democratic progress and Jewish rebirth after the Holocaust, since 1967, Israel has seen its reputation in Europe increasingly shaped by its occupation of the Palestinian territories. The EU’s 1980 Venice Declaration was a watershed in recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination and acknowledging the need for PLO involvement in negotiations. The 1982 Lebanon War and the First Intifada strengthened European views of Israel as an aggressive state that abused human rights.

In Western Europe, public disillusionment with Israel long predates Netanyahu.

During the peace process launched in Madrid in 1991, Israel’s international standing was transformed, with a wave of former communist and developing world countries establishing diplomatic relations. But the collapse of the peace process in the wake of Arafat’s rejection of the Clinton Parameters in 2000, and the violence that followed, deepened disillusionment among many Europeans.

Public attitudes toward Israel overall are much cooler in Western Europe than they are in North America. Within Europe, those on the left are much more likely to sympathize with the Palestinians over Israel compared to more conservative demographics, and this is especially the case for Millennials, the generation born after 1980. In the United Kingdom, for example, a 2014 Yougov survey showed that twice as many Conservative voters sympathized with Israel than the Palestinians, whereas among Labour voters, sympathies ran nearly three to one the other way. Similar partisan and age splits are evident in the United States, according to Pew.

Israel’s nightmare is the so-called South Africanization of its international relations: a popular boycott backed by divestment and sanctions sponsored by foreign governments of the kind imposed on South Africa’s apartheid government decades ago. In recent years, several European and American funds have barred cooperation with Israeli firms operating in the occupied territories, but Europe is where the BDS movement is strongest. There is evidence that corporate and public distaste for Israel is a drag on exports to the continent during periods of violence.

For some on the Israeli left, such a scenario represents Israel’s best hope for change. Former Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel, for example, has suggested that European pressure could push Israel to fix its own problems.

The Israeli right, meanwhile, tends to consider moves to pressure Israel as evidence of either foreign hostility toward Israel’s concerns or a Europe overwhelmed by a soaring Muslim demographic. In December 2016, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman likened a recent French-orchestrated international meeting on Israeli-Palestinian peace to the infamous anti-Semitic Dreyfus trial. This is the kind of polarizing rhetoric that has made it harder and harder for Western liberals to support Israel.

WHY TIES HAVE IMPROVED

It might seem, then, that Israel’s European standing is in freefall. Yet in some ways, economic and strategic cooperation between Israel and European states has never been better.

Imports from Israel to the EU hovered steady between 2011 and 2016 at around 14.8 billion dollars—a historic high—and last year, European governments bought record levels of defense equipment from Israel. Israel’s reputation as the so-called start-up nation is much admired on the Continent, as are its energetic academic and creative exports. All of this has helped restore some of Israel’s soft power.

What’s more, for all the bluster from Israeli ministers that anti-settlement measures constitute a discriminatory boycott, the EU’s focus on settlements promises to leave most of Israel’s economy and population untouched. Less than two percent of Israel’s exports to Europe come from settlements. More important for EU members’ trade balances, Israel is an increasingly important market, with imports from the EU growing from 14 billion euros in 2006 to more than 21 billion in 2016.

Moreover, European BDS campaigns still lack the support needed to make governments consider jeopardizing their economic ties with Israel, and in any case, many Israeli exports are intermediate industrial products, making a grassroots boycott much harder to implement. Some countries, notably France and the United Kingdom, have introduced legal measures to prevent boycotts. In Germany, despite recent tensions, the country’s historical responsibility for the Holocaust remains a significant feature of political culture, and any hint of boycotting Israeli products challenges a major taboo.

History resonates too for former Eastern bloc countries whose Jewish populations were largely annihilated in the Holocaust. Some of these states are among Israel’s most reliable supporters. The Czech Republic stood out in May 2017 when its parliament voted overwhelmingly that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital.

Even in countries where there has been a long-term decline in affections for Israel, this sentiment has not been accompanied by a broad embrace of the Palestinian cause. For many political leaders and much of the neutral public the Palestinian national movement is associated with chaos, corruption, and violent extremism, underlined by the consequences of Israel’s pullout from Gaza, which led to Hamas-rule and thousands of rockets fired at Israeli civilians. Although surveys in most European countries indicate more people are sympathetic to the Palestinians than with the Israelis, more still are either equivocal or indifferent.

Political leaders who have opposed Israeli policies have found their ideological positions tempered by material interests. Greece’s far-left party Syriza, for example, was deeply hostile to Israel while it was in opposition, but has deepened Greece’s economic and strategic cooperation with Israel since taking power. Greece needs trade and tourists, and covets a deal to pipe Israeli gas to European states that currently depend on Russian energy exports. It also values defense ties with Israel, thanks to its strained relations with Turkey. The interest in partnering with Israel’s military spans the continent. In November, Israel will host an air force exercise involving France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Poland.

THE JIHADISM FACTOR

What was once a zero-sum game for European countries—in which warmer ties with Israel would harm relations with Arab states—is now a thing of the past. Israeli and European interests are aligned in shoring up Western-aligned Sunni Arab states and containing anti-Western extremist forces. Today, Israel is a rock of stability not only for Egypt and Jordan, but even for the Gulf states with which it has no formal ties. Terror attacks in European cites, searing images of Islamic State butchery, and waves of Syrian refugees pouring into Europe have made it harder to sustain the idea that Israel is the source of Middle East instability, or the poison in relations between Islam and the West. European states especially value Israeli intelligence on the threats posed by Sunni jihadist groups (and to a lesser extent, on such Shiite militant groups as Hezbollah.) Moreover, when jihadists target European cities, it bolsters the Israeli narrative that frames Palestinian violence as driven by ideological extremism, as opposed to grievance at the occupation.

The jihadist threat is also one of the factors behind a recent populist right resurgence characterized by disenchantment with federalism and renewed nationalism. This creates some strange looking political alignments. For leading European right-wing populists, a pro-Israel stance is simultaneously a badge of opposition to Islam and an attempt to defray accusations of lingering anti-Semitism. Although the Israeli government keeps its distance from these parties, some Israeli right politicians have been ready to welcome them.

Meanwhile, British officials have leaned toward some Trump administration positions on Israel: British officials vetoed a French initiative on the peace process opposed by Israel in December; in March, they “[put] the Human Rights Council on notice,” as UK Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Julian Braithwaite put it, for its disproportionate focus on Israel’s actions.

THE FUTURE OF THE RELATIONSHIP

When European political leaders visit Israel, they still see a recognizable rule-of-law democracy. This important perception—which underpins a sense of shared identity—hangs by two intertwined threads: belief in the possibility of a two-state solution, and belief that Israel is still essentially democratic. Both threads are fraying. If there is no hope of a Palestinian state on the horizon, it will be harder to resist comparisons of Israel’s policies to apartheid and popular calls for sanctions, and harder to support Israel during wars. This helps explain why France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, spurred by a Knesset bill to legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land, voted for a Palestinian-backed UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements—a move that provided a potential platform for future sanctions.

Further steps by Israel that undermine the possibility of a two-state solution, such as annexation of parts of the West Bank, would lend weight to those Europeans arguing for EU sanctions against settlements, boost the BDS movement, and shape European firms’ assessments of their investments in Israel. That is why Israel should seize this moment—in which both Arab and European states value its partnership—to move more proactively toward a two-state solution.

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