Israeli-EU relations can be described as unfolding on two parallel tracks, and the economic track far exceeds the political one.
Political relations between Israel and the EU have not always been smooth, and have often lagged behind institutional-economic ones. Israeli-EU relations can be described as unfolding on two parallel tracks, and the economic track far exceeds the political one. While cooperation with the EU may take specific forms at a political level, what do Israeli citizens, elites, and the media think about the EU?
Israeli Visions of the EU
The Israeli public largely perceive Europe to be hostile to Israel’s fundamental national goals. This is because even as the EU and all its members repeatedly state their commitment to the existence and survival of Israel, they do not shy away from criticising key Israeli policies. Public opinion polls confirm this argument, with 63 percent of the Israeli public feeling that the EU is a weak supporter of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and 41 percent believing that the EU prevents a negotiated settlement to the Israel/Palestine situation.
Since EU enlargement in 2007, Israel probably has the largest concentration of would be or “émigré” EU citizens: 42 percent of Israeli Jews identify as potential EU citizens by virtue of their European ancestry. According to the same data nine percent of Israelis already hold citizenship in one of the 28 EU member states. And while relations with the EU may be important to many Israelis, the US is often considered an even more important partner. Only eight percent of Israelis consider relations with the EU as more important than relations with the US.
Nonetheless, the most fundamental Israeli view is that the EU is hospitable to potential Israeli accession, and therefore that Israel could and should join the EU in the foreseeable future. Just over half of the Israeli public are in favour of EU accession today. However, considering the EU’s position on the Israel/Palestine issue this is increasingly coming to look like an unachievable pipe dream.
There is concern that anti-Israeli attitudes are deeply-rooted in the EU and that the EU geostrategic positions are in opposition to Israel’s interests. Israelis feel that large parts of the EU are anti-Semitic. When asked what comes to mind when thinking about European countries and the EU, the leading answer among Hebrew respondents was anti-Semitism.
It’s not just the public that want to join the EU – even despite feeling that Europeans may be anti-Semitic and that the EU opposes Israeli interests. A number of Israeli leaders also feel that Israel could and should try to join the EU in the foreseeable future. In November 2010 Avigdor Liberman, then deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs insisted that Israel should become a member of the EU because of close ties between the EU and itself: as regards economics, cultural affairs, tourism and human values, we [Israelis] feel part of united Europe, and Israel should become a member of the EU. It is impossible to imagine modern Europe, modern Russia without Jewish spirit. [Israel] sees itself as part of Europe and does not seek to redivide [territory].
Benjamin Netanyahu has also declared Israel’s desire to join the EU and asked Italy to help it achieve this goal.
Although Israeli policymakers are aware of the importance of the EU to Israel, many of them share the public’s perception that good political relations with the EU are not necessarily critical. In a December 2014 statement that hyperbolically reflects Israeli dismissal of the EU, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Europeans appeared to have learned nothing from the Holocaust and he condemned the judgment of the General Court of the EU for removing Hamas from the European list of terrorist organisations. In his words:
We saw today examples hanging before us of Europeans prejudice. […] It seems that too many in Europe, on whose soil six million Jews were slaughtered, have learned nothing. But we in Israel, we have learned. We’ll continue to defend our people and our state against the forces of terror and tyranny and hypocrisy. The friendship we see from the United States stands in complete contrast to what we are seeing regretfully in Europe.
Israeli leaders have also castigated the EU for criticising its approval of construction plans in east Jerusalem and in the occupied territories (OT). In December 2012, following an EU statement criticizing Israelʼs new settlement constructions plans, Avigdor Liberman, then deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, accused EU foreign ministers of behaving like “Nazi quietists”. In a radio interview Liberman compared some of the current actions of the EU and its members to actions during the Holocaust. Liberman said that “the Jews have seen in the past how certain European nations turned their eyes from the evidence and pretended not to see when Jews were threatened with destruction and sent to concentration camps”. He added that he “is not happy with Europe’s position that for another time in history it ignores calls to destroy Israel. […] we already went through that with Europe at the end of the 1930s and in the 1940s”. On the same day, Liberman went even further and declared in a political gathering that “from the point of view of some European foreign ministers, Israelʼs destruction is apparently something that is taken for granted”.
Media Visions of the EU
The UK, France, and Germany are the three most discussed EU member states across Israeli newspapers. In the case of the UK and France this is largely due to popular gossip stories, rather than UK/France-Israeli relations per se. News items on Germany focus mainly on economic issues, the Israeli expats’ campaign for compatriots to emigrate to Germany and to Europe for a higher standard of living, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust related issues.
Despite being two of Israel’s closest EU allies in the past years, Greece and Hungary receive the most negative coverage from Israel. One would suspect that the negative coverage of these two countries had to do with the Greek debt crisis or Prime Minister Viktor Orban hollowing out the democratic values of Hungary. However, the main reason behind the negative press coverage had to do with the alarming increase of anti-Semitic incidents in these two countries along with the rise of the Greek neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” party and the Hungarian anti-Semitic “Jobbik” party.
Understanding Israel’s Visions of the EU
The first Israeli view that the Union represents a hospitable framework for accession goes back to 1957, the year in which Israel started exploring the possibility of obtaining full EEC membership. This view is the fruit of wishful thinking. What is surprising is the degree to which senior Israeli officials as well as some European leaders, policy-makers and others who are familiar with the EU, cling to this idea. These views on Israeli membership in the EU ignore fundamental clashes between Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state and the state of the Jewish people, on the one hand, and the guiding principle of the EU of an open and unified space without sharp distinctions between citizens of member states in terms of “Us” and the “Other,” on the other hand. This difference would not be something that Israel could easily give up, since for many Israelis it underscores the very raison d’être of a Jewish state.
The second Israeli perception that good relations with the EU are not critical for Israel causes it particular harm, since political relations with the EU are essential for the future of Israel. Not only does the Israeli economy and significant parts of its research and technology depend on cooperation with the EU, but the Union’s standing in global affairs, in security policies, not to mention its desire to be more involved in the MEPP in light of the current refugee crisis, are likely to remain strong.
The third Israeli perception that EU policies towards Israel are deeply rooted and rigid and that large parts of the EU are anti-Semitic is harder to dispel, given that there are voices in EU member states – like political leaders in Greece and Hungary - that justify such thinking.
Israelis’ visions of the EU put the distinctiveness of the Union into question. Since 2011, the EU deepened its political irrelevance and economic fragility for Israelis even as it strengthened its trade importance. The key to understanding some of the Israeli visions of the EU may be found in the fact that Jewish blood courses through Europe’s veins while “the hostile anti-Semitic continent” courses through the veins of about 50 percent of Israeli Jews.
However problematic and contradictory some of these visions might be, one should not lose sight of the fact that they play a critical a role in EU-Israeli relations. Member states and EU leaders are encouraged to open a direct dialogue with Israelis on a people-to-people level. The dialogue, however, must dare to confront difficult issues, including the overarching question of what values Europeans and Israelis truly share.
Indeed, the EU should not merely replicate the Barcelona Process or European Neighbourhood Policy-type dialogues that were wholly dedicated to celebrating shared values. Only an open, honest and frank exchange of ideas on what divides and unites Europeans and Israelis can strengthen EU-Israeli relations.
Sharon Pardo is Jean Monnet Chair ad personam in European Studies in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. This article draws on Sharon Pardo, Normative Power Europe Meets Israel: Perceptions and Realities (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015). The author would like to acknowledge the support of the Israeli office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS).
. KAS and Sharon Pardo, Measuring the Attitudes of Israelis towards the European Union and its Member States – 2009 (Jerusalem: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2009). The KAS and Pardo 2009 survey was carried out in April 2009 by Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications. A representative sample of 600 people responded to the survey, with a margin of error of 4.1 percent.
Following the enactment of the 2015 Portuguese and the 2016 Spanish laws of return, Sephardic Jews are now designated as Jews who descend from the ancient and traditional Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula, and can now apply for Spanish and Portuguese citizenships. Hence, the author assumes that about 50 percent of Israeli Jews could be identified as potential EU citizens by virtue of their European ancestry.
. Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and Sharon Pardo, Measuring the Attitudes of Israelis towards Europe the European Union: A Comprehensive Benchmark Survey – 2016 (Jerusalem: KAS, 2016, Unpublished). The survey was carried out from 27 December 2015 until 15 January 2016 by Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications and included a representative sample of 1,000 people with a margin of error of 2.25 percent.
. Interfax News Agency “Israel Foreign Minister Wants Israel to be EU Member,” Interfax News Agency, 3 November 2010.
. Galatz, “Israel Should Join the European Union,” Galatz Radio Station, 9 November 2002.
There are also voices in the EU that support such thinking, feeding this Israeli perception that Israeli membership in the EU is plausible. See for example, Lithuaniaʼs former prime minister, Andrius Kubilius (Andrius Kubilius, “Address by Prime Minister of Lithuania,” IDC, 20 December 2010; Dafna Maor and Asher Schechter, “The Second Coming of the Baltic Tiger,” Haaretz, 19 January 2011, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/business/the-second-coming-of-the-baltic-tiger-1.337865); Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (Globes, “Berlusconi: Italy will Support Israeli EU Membership,” Globes, 3 October 2004; Ynet, “Statements by PM Olmert and European Leaders,” Ynet News, 18 January 2009; Maya Bengal, “Berlusconi: My Dream – to Bring Israel into the Union,” nrg, 1 February 2010, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/048/248.html); Former EU special representative to the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) and former Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Moratinos (Attila Somfalvi, “Spanish Foreign Minister: How Can Liberman be Subordinate to the Union?” Ynet News, 2 February 2010, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3843404,00.html); and former High Representative Javier Solana (“Javier Solana on Israel EU Relations 21 October 2009,” accessed 6 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFxXkWVRBeo).
. Hamas vs. European Council (Case T-400/10) Judgment of December 17, 2014, Judgment of the Court (Second Chamber).
. Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu: Too many in Europe Have learned Nothing from the Slaughter of 6 Million Jews,” The Jerusalem Post, 17 December 2014, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Netanyahu-Too-many-in-Europe-have-learned-nothing-from-the-slaughter-of-6-million-Jews-384952; Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu: Europe has Learned Nothing from Holocaust,” Haaretz, 17 December 2014, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.632369.
. Herb Keinon, “Israel to Withhold NIS 1.6b. of PA Tax Revenue,” The Jerusalem Post, 12 December 2012, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Israel-to-withhold-NIS-16b-of-PA-tax-revenue.
. Barak Ravid, “EU: Lieberman’s Holocaust Reference is Inappropriate and Offensive to Europeans,” Haaretz, 12 December 2012, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/eu-lieberman-s-holocaust-reference-is-inappropriate-and-offensive-to-europeans.premium-1.484438.
. The so called “Milky/chocolate pudding protest”; Haaretz, “Meet the Israeli Emigre Who Sparked the Berlin Pudding Protest,” Haaretz, 19 October 2014, accessed 6 July 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/1.621481.
. Sharon Pardo, “The Year that Israel Considered Joining the European Economic Community,” Journal of Common Market Studies 51, no. 5 (2013): 901–15.
. See endnote no. 4 above.
. Iver B. Neumann, Uses of the Other: “The East” in European Identity Formation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Bo Stråth, ed., Europe and the Other and Europe as the Other (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2000).
. Yehezkel Dror and Sharon Pardo, “Approaches and Principles for an Israeli Grand Strategy.”
 . According to a Europe wide survey on Jews’ experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism, commissioned in 2013 by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), nearly a quarter of European Jews fear to openly identify as Jewish. More than 26 percent of European Jews claim to have experienced anti-Semitic harassment at least once in the 12 months preceding the survey, and 34 percent had experienced anti-Semitic harassment over the past five years; European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Discrimination and Hate Crime Against Jews in EU Member States: Experiences and Perceptions of Antisemitism (Vienna: European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2013).
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.