EU-Israeli Relations in troubled times

The Israel-EU relations were in the focus of a weekend seminar organized by the Forum for Liberal Thinking in cooperation with the Jerusalem office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty at the end of January, in Kibbutz Maale Chamischa, nearby Jerusalem.

With a fast growing Muslim population and a recent dramatic influx of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Maghreb, Europe is been increasingly challenged by the ramifications of the conflicts in the Middle East. How are the EU-Israeli relations affected by these new developments? And how can the relation be improved and maintained? How will the EU meet these new challenges? What are the characteristics of the EU-Israeli relations?  These were the central questions guiding the seminar in which a liberal oriented, 70 people strong, audience participated.

Amikam Nachmani from the Bar Ilan University spoke about the rising tensions between the Muslim minority population and the predominantly Christian majority population in the European countries. Recent incidents of violence highlight the problem of a deep cultural divide between the Muslims and their non-Muslim environment, which has become a politically charged issue. However, certainly one cannot speak about one “Islamic Nation” in the borders of Europe and a distinction must be made between the radical Muslim minority and secular or practicing Muslims who subscribe neither to the theology nor to politics of the radicals. All in all the influx of Muslim immigrants into Europe is for and foremost rooted in the common human aspiration for a better life. Unfortunately, current developments in the different European members states show that – despite the fact that the EU understands itself as a community based on common and shared values and principles –until to date there has been no consensus reached among the member states about how to strategically and systematically deal with the challenging political, social, religious, and economic problems associated with the migrants’ absorption.

Eyal Inbar from the Trade and Economic Section at the EU delegation in Israel and Walter Klitz, director of the Jerusalem Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, both stressed at the beginning that despite of what is being publically perceived through the media in Israel, European-Israeli relations as judged according to the level of cooperation in various fields can be described as very good.

Eyal Inbar briefly delved into the EU’s foundation history and stressed that the EU is a unique economic and political partnership between 28 European countries that together cover much of the continent. The EU was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. The first steps were to foster economic cooperation, while the idea was that countries that trade with one another become economically interdependent and hence more likely to avoid conflict. Since 2000 the EU-Israel Association Agreement has entered into force and since then EU and Israel have established intensive commercial ties. The EU in fact is Israel’s trade partner number one with total trade amounting to around 30 billion Euros in 2014. Intensive ties between the EU and Israel have also been established in the fields of research and development, innovation and technology, a cooperation field recently also reinforced in the frame of the horizon 2020, EU’s biggest research and innovation program. While economic policy and cooperation of the EU is based on very clear guidelines and legally very well embedded, the foreign policy of the EU is rather lacking a clear strategy and a base of a common understanding and legal enforcement.

The recent uproar regarding the labeling of products from Israel is being based on a huge misunderstanding according to the two speakers, since the exclusion of products produced in the West Bank from the preferential treatment of tariffs has been agreed upon by both parties in the frame of the association agreement and is not a new regulation. In addition each product entering the EU, as it is also practiced in Israel, has to be labeled to notify where the product has been produced. In the case of products produced e.g. in the West Bank, which according to international law and Israeli law is not part of Israel, the label cannot carry the label “Israel” but a different one has to be used.

In addition Walter Klitz stressed that there should be a clear distinction between labeling, which is a common practice in international trade on the one hand and boycott, which is clearly politically motivated, on the other hand. To associate labeling with boycott is clearly playing into the hands of anti-Israeli organizations like the BDS, which searches to delegitimize Israel in the whole, not only in the economic but in the academic, political and cultural spheres. Walter Klitz gave more insights in the structure, aims and activities of the BDS movements.

Emmanuel Navon referred to the EU role in the Middle East conflict from the past until today. Europe’s foreign policies is guided by interests of its member states, mainly the leading states, among them France, which has a strong historical connection and interest in the region.  In the case of France when after de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 and with the end of the Algerian war in 1962, the strategic relation between Israel and France came to an end, France was eager to rebuild its interests in the Arab world, France distanced itself from Israel and harshly condemned it after the Six Day War of 1967.  The oil embargo of 1973 is what enabled France to gather support for its pro-Arab policy within the European Economic Community (EEC), as exemplified by the 1980 Venice Declaration with called upon the US and Israel to negotiate with the PLO.  The Oslo process significantly narrowed the political gap between Israel and the European Union (formerly EEC).  Yet, when the process collapsed in the summer of 2000, France put the blame on Israel.  This attitude has alienated many Israelis.

France and its European partners could have a constructive impact on the conflict by demanding democratic reforms and financial transparency in the Palestinian Authority, and by making clear that both sides need to compromise, not only Israel.  A European recognition of Palestine must be made conditional upon the Palestinian abandonment of the so-called “right of return,” which is incompatible with a two state solution.  On the Israeli side the political leadership has to understand that the current status quo is not sustainable anymore and a clear political vision and strategy is needed to finally solve the ongoing conflict. One cannot continue to announce that one is committed to certain solutions and then act the opposite in real politics.