Israel’s Balkan offensive

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Should the EU recognise Palestine? ECFR asked this question at a recent ‘Black Coffee Morning’ with John Bell from the Toledo Peace Institute*. It seems we may have been a little over-ambitious as outside powers have been busy lobbying before Europe has made up its mind.

Europe is used to being divided by China and Russia, who pick countries small and large alike, flattering them with favors and special deals to create their own ‘Trojan horses’ in Brussels. We are not so used to being played by tiny Israel.

“We are finding new partnerships, new alliances in places where we had once invested little time, energy and resources,” Israel’s ebullient Prime Minister told Reuters at the start of a visit to countries that rarely feature on his schedule – Romania and Bulgaria. In Bucharest Netanyahu appeared to get the backing of Romania in the September UN vote on recognition and Israeli officials have been making optimistic noises about Bulgaria’s intentions. This is coming off the back of intensive diplomacy with a desperate Athens – that Israel has been offering military cooperation to in exchange for support against the pro-Gaza ‘Flotilla.’  

Europeans as Swing Voters

The EU has found itself centre stage in the latest UN match of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the US and Canada sure to vote ‘No,’ the Islamic world and Russia a sure ‘yes’ – the Europeans have emerged as crucial swing-voters. The Palestinians view European backing as crucial for legitimizing them beyond their usual third world and Russian supporters. The Israelis view the EU and wider European votes as a critical test of their international legitimacy.

Israeli envoys recently toured Central Europe, with Netanyahu tacking a particular liking to his hosts in Prague (“they understand”) but there has been a bigger blossoming in the Balkans. The conflict is not central to the moral map of the region that squarely supports ethnically defined statehood. Lack of an Arab minority or post-colonial or ‘War on Terror’ guilt also makes them more sympathetic to Jerusalem. In Balkan politics support for Israel is viewed as a component – if not a very important one – of an Atlanticist outlook.

Israel can offer these states investments, military-technology deals and a chance to drink deep from its newly discovered gas supplies. This will be of interest in the region as it could lessen dependence on former occupiers Russia and Turkey. The moral boost of support for Palestine is not seen as particularly useful.

In the Western Balkans there have been attempts to court Israel and the Jews as they are seen as a way to the American heart. Cozying up to Israel is seen as a good way to raise sympathy in Congress and the US establishment. This matters for countries that are chasing NATO membership or want better ties with Washington – like Serbia. Macedonia recently opened a large Holocaust Museum. Cynics have suggested that this may not just be a nod to the annihilated Jewish community of the country. Kosovo is keen to get Israeli recognition as it would be seen as ‘the blessing of America’s best friend.’ Mini-Montenegro views good ties with Israel as a prime source of tourist revenue. Voting for the Palestinians is far less compelling.  

Western Balkan countries also see themselves in Israel’s wars – Serbs and Macedonian Slavs identify with the struggle against Muslims, whilst Bosnians and Albanians indentify with their post-genocidal struggle for statehood. This is what Netanyahu is trying to leverage into ‘no’ votes at the UN.   

Israel’s Balkan offensive adds a further division in the EU as we approach September – Germany and Italy are expected to abstain. Central Europeans, who have little connection to the Palestinians, and a large dollop of post-Holocaust guilt, are likely to follow suit. This leaves London and Paris uncertainly toying with the idea of a yes vote and the looming prospect of an EU split.

To quote my colleague Daniel Korski from our original Black Coffee morning – “This could be the third major split in EU foreign policy making after the Iraq war and the Libyan war” – exactly what the Lisbon Treaty and the new EU diplomatic corps was supposed to prevent.

* You can listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of John Bell's analysis of Palestinian recognition here.

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