For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to exploit the growing ideological divide within the European Union to dismantle the union’s consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, for the first time, researchers have mapped the differences in EU members’ relations with the Netanyahu government and analyzed the reasons for the union’s loss of relevance in advancing a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Their study, published in advance of next week’s elections for the European Parliament, found that Hungary is the country that works hardest to block EU decisions critical of Israeli policies, while Ireland is the EU’s most active critic of these policies. France, meanwhile, is the country most supportive of resuming international peace efforts.
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The research was done by Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies in cooperation with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and the peace organization PAX.
The study examined EU-Israel relations since 1980, when the EU stepped up its involvement in the Palestinian issue with the Venice Declaration. That document declared the EU’s commitment “to work in a more concrete way towards peace” and recognized the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Since then, there has been little change in either the EU’s goal or its basic positions, which support a two-state solution and therefore oppose Israeli settlements.
But the researchers – Dr. Nimrod Goren, Dr. Muriel Asseburg, Dr. Nicolai von Ondarza and Dr. Eyal Ronen – found that the EU’s relevance to the two-state solution has steadily waned over time, due to American dominance of efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians and Israeli objections to EU initiatives.
Among the key factors that have left the EU in the back seat, they said, are its own structural problems, first and foremost the fact that EU foreign policy requires unanimous agreement. This effectively gives every member state a veto over every decision – a problem that hasn’t affected relations just with Israel, but especially, in recent years, with Russia.
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At the same time, the EU’s top foreign policy officials have lost their ability to be a unifying force. Specifically, the study said, current foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has lost political power in her own country, which weakens her influence in the EU as a whole.
The second obstacle to the EU becoming a key player in the Middle East is more ideological – the growing debate over European sovereignty and strategic autonomy, the researchers said. This has created a growing rift between the union’s progressive states and its more nationalist ones and prevented a unified approach to the union’s security doctrine in the Middle East.
A third problem is Britain’s decision to leave the EU. This has taken attention away from all other issues within the EU, and is also likely to decrease the country’s involvement in Europe’s foreign and defense policy.
A fourth potential challenge, the researchers said, is next week’s election for the European Parliament. Though EU parliament members have limited influence over the union’s foreign policy, they can influence the choice of who will head key EU institutions. Additionally, the election will provide a measure of the strength of populist and Euro-skeptic forces within the union.
The study also examined the way Netanyahu has sought to exploit these problems, and especially the EU’s growing ideological divide, in order to correct what he sees as the EU’s unbalanced approach toward Israel. He has sought to break the link between the Palestinian issue and upgrades in EU-Israel relations, while also trying to tie criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism. The latter issue is particularly evident in Israel’s relations with the current Austrian government.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s policy is threatening Israel’s ties with Jewish communities who perceive elements of anti-Jewish racism in their countries’ far-right governments.
Netanyahu has sought to achieve his goals mainly by forging ties with particular blocs of EU countries, primarily the central and eastern European countries that joined the union more recently. The most well-known such alliance is with the Visegrad Group, comprising Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But he has engaged in similar outreach to the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), the Balkan states (Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia) and the Hellenic countries (Greece and Cyprus).
What most of these alliances have in common is a similar view of external and internal threats, such as migration and terrorism, as well as a desire for cooperation with Israel in the fields of security, energy and innovation. An additional incentive in some of these alliances has been the rise of far-right parties seeking to prove that they aren’t anti-Semitic.
The study divides the EU into three main groupings in terms of attitudes toward Israel – countries more critical of Israeli government policies, countries more supportive of these policies and countries that seek to balance these difference and strive for consensus insofar as possible. But even within these groups, there are differences in the countries’ level of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The bloc of critical countries comprises France, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Spain, Denmark, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Finland. Of these, the most active is Ireland, which is currently advancing legislation in its own country to ban imports from the settlements. Sweden is the only EU country to have recognized Palestine as a state and established full diplomatic relations with it. In Spain, the left has advanced various proposals to defend anti-Israel boycotts on the grounds of freedom of expression. France, despite being more critical than fellow founding members like Britain and Germany, focuses mainly on promoting peace initiatives. Denmark and Finland have recently been leaning more to the center of the map.
The “balancing” countries are Germany, Britain, Italy and Holland. However, Italy does tend to support efforts to protect Palestinians in Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control, while Germany sometimes leans toward the critical side.
The countries more supportive of Israeli policy are Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Greece and Cyprus. However, relations with Poland have recently deteriorated over Polish legislation barring discussion of the Polish people’s involvement in Nazi crimes. And the Baltic countries still support a two-state solution.
But despite the EU’s internal divisions over the Palestinian issue, to date, these divisions have mainly resulted in blocking certain proposals or declarations that require consensus. There is no indication as yet that the core policy has changed. Thus, for instance, no EU country has yet broken with EU policy by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, even though some of the countries with which Netanyahu has formed alliances have talked about doing so.