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What's at Stake for Israel if Britain Leaves the EU

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Supporters for the U.K. opposition Labour Party hold up banners at a launch event for the 'Labour In Britain' campaign bus in London, U.K., May 10, 2016.
Supporters for the U.K. opposition Labour Party hold up banners at a launch event for the 'Labour In Britain' campaign bus in London, U.K., May 10, 2016. Credit: Simon Dawson, Bloomberg

On 23 June, for the first time since 1975, the British will vote in a referendum to decide their future in the European Union. The question facing voters is very simple: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” 

Up until now, the issues dominating the referendum have been the state of the economy, jobs, immigration and wider questions over British sovereignty. The question of the EU’s foreign policy, including its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been far from British voters’ minds. However, were the British to vote for withdrawal from Europe (known popularly as a Brexit), this could certainly have significant reverberations for Israel, the Palestinians and the wider region. 

This week, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström (a name that Israelis will remember), warned that a British exit from the EU could lead to a domino effect causing the break-up of the Union. Were a Brexit to occur, other countries could eventually follow suit. So it is little wonder that Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are pleading with the British public to remain in the EU. 

U.S. President Obama and the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, have both weighed in, giving warning that a British exit from the EU would damage Europe and transatlantic cooperation. Five former Secretary Generals of NATO have also warned that Brexit will be harmful for NATO. Yet these stark warnings appear to have made little difference to the British public, as polls show that the ‘leave’ camp is now in the lead.  

Dennis McShane and Jacques Lafitte were correct to point out in Haaretz that a Brexit could be damaging for Israel, as Britain is one of Israel’s strongest supporters within the EU. Yet the EU’s ability to play a meaningful role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will surely be diminished in the long term, following a Brexit. This may come as a blow for those who have placed their faith in the EU’s ability to exert a positive influence on policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. 

The relations between Israel and Europe have not been able to break free completely of the shadows of the Holocaust. The suspicions of the nationalist camp in Israel towards the EU (and its previous incarnation, the EEC) were first laid bare during the Venice Declaration of June 1980. In the face of fierce protests by Israel, the groundbreaking EEC initiative called for Palestinian self-determination and a role for the PLO in peace negotiations, while also condemning the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israel’s then Prime Minister Menachem Begin claimed that the EEC initiative threatened the very existence of the State of Israel, arguing that the Venice Declaration was a “Munich-like surrender” which recognized “the organization of murderers” (the PLO).

Yet Begin was not alone in condemning the EEC initiative: even Abba Eban, the veteran Israeli statesman and dove, told the Europeans “to keep out”. Thirty six years on, various ministers in the Netanyahu government have accused the EU of “anti-Semitism” over its policy of labeling Israeli goods which are produced in the settlements. 

Yet a closer look at the events unfolding in Europe would suggest that the EU may find it increasingly difficult to exert pressure on recalcitrant parties. In June 2016, the EU finds itself increasingly demoralized amid growing threats to security and an ongoing crisis over migration. The demeaning manner in which the EU has kowtowed to Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a desperate attempt to get a grip on the migration crisis, is a sure sign that the EU is losing its way. A British withdrawal from the EU could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Already, Britain’s Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, has warned that Brexit would damage the EU’s ability to continue imposing tough sanctions on Russia, which will have wider implications for Western collective security. If the EU is hamstrung on policy towards Russia, is there any reason to believe that it will be any more effective in the Middle East?

While many in Israel would experience schadenfreude at the sight of a weakened Europe, this would be short-sighted. The EU played a significant role in strengthening the international sanctions that eventually brought Iran to the negotiating table, and has been sympathetic to Israel’s concerns over Hamas and Hezbollah. It is also Israel’s largest trading partner. 

According to a May poll of the Anglo-Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle, a majority of the Jewish community is in favor of remaining in the EU. This suggests that most British Jews would prefer the “devil they know” to the uncertainty that would come with an exit from the EU. While the views of the Jewish community on the forthcoming referendum, like the wider British public, are likely to be focused on domestic matters, the fallout will be felt far beyond.   

Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. His book, Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East will be published by Cambridge University Press in August 2016. 

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