Analysis

Netanyahu Expands His Struggle Against EU During Baltics Visit

Netanyahu said he intended to counterbalance the EU’s 'unfriendly approach to Israel' through direct contact with European leaders

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania, August 23, 2018.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

In the heart of Vilnius, Lithuania – his ancestors’ homeland, as he often points out – Benjamin Netanyahu formally thanked the country’s prime minister for helping him wage his all-out diplomatic war on the European Union in recent years.

Netanyahu lauded Saulius Skvernelis on Thursday for his “strong stand” in support of Israel in EU forums. He said it was refreshing to see Skvernelis stand for “clarity, truth and courage.”

“I want to thank you, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Linas, for the strong position you have taken in the forums of the EU on behalf of truth, on behalf of Israel, on behalf of decency. Israel is often mistreated by the EU in Brussels. There are many distortions that are leveled at us and it’s refreshing to see that you take a stand of clarity, of truth and of courage. And we discussed how that can be expanded,” he said.

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Netanyahu said he intended to counterbalance the EU’s “unfriendly approach to Israel” through direct contact with European leaders, as he began a three-day trip to Lithuania, where he is set to meet leaders of the Baltic nations.

Lithuania helped Netanyahu visit the EU headquarters in December by getting him a breakfast invitation with European foreign ministers before their monthly session. The move was seen at the time as running contrary to protocol and raised considerable anger in the office of the union’s head of foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini.

Netanyahu has systematically cozied up to the most nationalistic countries of central and east Europe, with the aim of sabotaging the required consensus among the union’s 28 members to pursue a uniform foreign policy. Now he further revealed his strategy to use sub-regional blocs of states, like the Visegrad Forum and its star from Hungary, Viktor Orban, to sway EU positions on the Palestinians and Iran, or at least prevent a consensus, a tactic that would hinder the possibility of advancing new moves affecting Israel.

“I am interested in balancing the not always friendly attitude of the European Union towards Israel so that we receive fairer and more straight-forward treatment. I am doing this through contacts with blocs of countries within the European Union, Eastern European countries, [and] now with the Baltic countries, as well, of course, as with other countries,” Netanyahu said before boarding his plane.

Netanyahu is also due to meet Lituhania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite, Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis and Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas. Also, Netanyahu is scheduled to attend a commemoration ceremony at the memorial site of the Jews’ massacre in Ponar, meet the leaders of the Jewish community in the Vilnius’ Choral Synagogue, the only in the city to survive the Holocaust, and visit the gravesite of the Vilna Gaon, where he will no doubt tell his hosts yet again the history of his family, descendants from the sage of Vilna.

“You know, my family’s from here,” Netanyahu told his Lithuanian counterpart a moment before their meeting. “I know, I know,” the host said.

Israel’s relations with Lithuania and Latvia have been growing warmer in the last few years. Estonia is seen as cooler in its position and leaning toward a neutral stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – especially during its term as the EU’s president. Unlike West Europe’s larger states, the Baltic states suffer from negative migration to other EU countries, which leads to a brain drain, and Israel is seeking to strengthen its relations with Estonia on the basis of this issue. Also, the complex history of the Baltic states and Russia has led to the rise of ultra-nationalistic views, and, since the Russian invasion of Crimea, deep concern over defense and military power.

Netanyahu emphasized that, too, in his meetings, telling Lithuanian leaders that like Israel, Lithuania has great national pride, while stressing that this quality stood “alongside democratic values and individual rights.”

Observers in the corridors of Brussels told Haaretz that Netanyahu’s acts indeed have a “chilling effect” on the ability to publish joint statements in the name of the 28 member states. These dynamics are not new but became more prevalent and assertive in the past two or three years. “It’s more difficult for the EU to speak with one clear voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” one observer said.

Netanyahu’s cultivation of relations with the eastern European and Baltic states at the expense of the large liberal countries, like France and Germany, comes at a price that some would call ideological and others would call strategic. He is doing all he can to undermine Germany and France in a bid to prevent EU support for the two-state solution, which he himself usually supports in statements made to international audiences.