The Jerusalem Center Working Group’s inauguration on March 17, 2018, as noted by Fiamma Nirenstein in her conclusions, was a seminal event with the mutual goal of defining a new pattern in Israeli-European relations.
Since the Working Group last met, critical elements of these relations have further developed as a consequence of decisions taken by Israel and the United States – the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, new Israeli construction in the West Bank, and President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA Iran deal. In addition, the period saw initiatives undertaken by “external players,” including Iran, Russia, and Turkey, which were detrimental to Israeli security and, in a wider sense, Western interests and concerns.
In response to the external players, different opinions exist in Europe, not always in parallel with Israel’s, about the impact that the deployment of Iranian “proxies” and militias in the Golan Heights, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq – without any visible objection from Moscow – have on the security of Israel and the future of the region. The uprising cynically planned by Hamas in Gaza in March 2018, with the tragic loss of lives and the many casualties it triggered, immediately became a thorny subject in Brussels.
The existing European mood can be summarized by the positions expressed by the European Union on the “settlements” and JCPOA issues:
On “settlements,” the EU Commission recently stated: “May 30, 2018, Israeli authorities approved and advanced plans for the construction of nearly 2,000 settlement units in the West Bank. At the same time, the Israeli authorities have stated their intent to demolish the Palestinian community of Khan Al-Ahmar in Area C, which is the main land reserve of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. These developments, alongside other related actions taken in recent months, seriously undermine the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace. Building new settlements for Israelis while demolishing Palestinian homes in the same area will only further entrench a one-state reality of unequal rights, perpetual occupation, and conflict. In line with our long-standing position on Israel’s settlement policy, illegal under international law, and actions taken in that context, such as forced transfers, evictions, demolitions, and confiscations of homes, the European Union expects the Israeli authorities to reconsider and reverse these decisions. This issue has been raised directly with the Israeli authorities.”
Concerning the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)
The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal has changed the situation surrounding EU policies toward Iran. But the change has perhaps been less dramatic than some in Europe expected. Dealing with the Iranian regime has always been a much larger issue than the nuclear deal itself. So, while the United States and Europe may seem like they are pursuing different priorities than Israel, regarding the JCPOA itself, they do not have to be at cross purposes: especially when it comes to Iran policy in general, to regional stability, and the need to react to the behavior of a regime that supports international terrorism and exploits the sanctions removal to finance military interventions abroad instead of helping its own population. With or without the JCPOA in force, Tehran’s future depends upon the collective actions of Western powers and the international community. And while those various actors may disagree about the nuclear issue, that does not necessarily undermine their prospects for agreeing on a new approach toward Iran, one that is multi-faceted and based on a position of strength.
Up until this point, the mullahs have exploited the financial windfall that resulted from the JCPOA. They have used it to pursue destructive policies, including further suppression of the Iranian people, intensifying their exportation of terror and extremism, developing ballistic missiles in violation of international resolutions, and contributing to the bloodshed in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Contrary to expectations laid out at the signing of the JCPOA, the average Iranian did not get any benefit from the agreement. Their hardships have continued unabated, as evidenced by escalating labor protests that express such basic demands as the payment of months of back wages. Many Iranians have gotten poorer, as unfrozen assets and public income were plundered by regime officials and especially by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
During the weeks leading up to the U.S. decision, European leaders, like President Macron, Chancellor Merkel, and Prime Minister May, tried to convince Tehran that a different path was needed: implementing UN Security Council Res. 2231 on missile proliferation and putting an end to military and sectarian interference in neighbors’ affairs. The mullahs’ response confirmed their absolute unwillingness to engage in any form of cooperative attitude toward these broader issues. If there is a chance to avoid a dangerous conflagration as an outcome of irresponsible Iranian behavior, a united transatlantic community is needed. It should be united in asserting the common objectives set by the three EU leaders for a new Iranian policy. Working now in the opposite direction may please the mullahs and further encourage already risky economic transactions that major companies and financial institutions are increasingly keen to avoid. A situation where EU officials engage in pro-mullah propaganda against the West’s common interest and values would be uncomfortable both for the European and the Israeli public. A common platform of cooperation and objectives between Europe and Israel should be found as far as the overall “Iranian strategy” is concerned.
How far can a “political alliance” between Europe and Israel go? How useful could the definition of a true “special partnership” be for both sides?
It seems strange that seven decades after the foundation of the State of Israel, and 63 years after the first Treaties of Rome, we are still discussing how to improve political ties between Israel and Europe.
Since the very beginning of their existence, both Israel and the European Economic Community (EEC) felt that they had a common destiny, having been born out of the same anxieties, the same quest for peace, human values, freedom, and security for all in Europe and the Jewish world.
In 1957, thanks to the impulse of David Ben Gurion, Israel was on its way toward full membership in the European Community. The following year, it was the first country to establish formal relations. The European Union has been a top trading partner of Israel for many years, on an almost equal footing with the United States and the second-biggest source of R&D funding for Israel.
Recently, European neighborhood-policies have increasingly been influenced by the disappointment of the European public and political environment in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Their stalemate was generally attributed more to Israelis than to Palestinians. Brussels has declared time and again that a further strengthening of the neighborhood policy with Jerusalem had to be seen in the broader context of the Palestinian issue, while no parallelism or conditionality has ever been stated in similar terms for the Palestinian side.
The initial European offer of a “Special Partnership” has not been followed by detailed and structured proposals. Still, over the past decade, Israel’s public perceptions vis-a-vis the European Union did not seem to be particularly affected. Even if anti-Israel campaigns – such as BDS – and increasing anti-Semitism in segments of European society may discourage those who put forward the “European perspective,” many Israelis are profoundly attached, culturally and personally, to the countries their ancestors, parents, families, and they came from. According to some estimates, 9 percent of Israeli citizens also hold a European passport, while 47 percent consider themselves potential European citizens because of their ancestry. A second reason relates to shared values that the European Union staunchly supports and promotes. A third motive is the understanding that many Israelis have about European convictions: that Israel is an indispensable and vital part of our civilization; Israel is the only real and stable liberal democracy in the entire region; huge benefits exist in each step toward closer EU-Israel relations; and Israeli ingenuity provides the best laboratory for many innovations.
The “Special Partnership” should involve EU institutions, member states and their civil societies, commission, councils, and the European Parliament. Commission services actively involved with intelligence, security, and immigration sectors would deepen their cooperation with Israeli counterparts.
Over the last four years, the United States and the European Union have been put on a back foot due to Russian intervention in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, Russian and Iranian support for Syrian President Assad and Iraqi prime ministers, the Iranian nuclear program, and destabilizing activities in the whole region, Palestinian maneuvers at the United Nations, and attacks from Hamas and Hizbullah. A widespread narrative has been disseminated to weaken and confuse public opinion and leaders. In many instances, a mixture of obfuscation, disinformation, and surprise has prepared and accompanied aggressive behavior and the use of force. Combatting jihadist terrorism, such as ISIS, has been hindered by conflicting agendas among those actors, and other regional players that oppose Western interests and values.
An Information Command Center
More than ever before, since the end of the “Cold War” the need is felt for effective coordination between the European Union, NATO, and Israel on the use of information warfare. Moscow presides over a command center that includes the general staff and virtually all arms of government, from media and internet regulators to supervisors of sanctions and transportation. Similar efforts are undertaken by the Iranian government, the Syrian regime, and non-state actors like ISIS. They operate through a vast, sophisticated, well-funded web of agencies, NGOs, think tanks, media organizations, individuals whose common denominator is anti-American, anti-European, and anti-Israeli, with frequent binges of anti-Semitism and hate propaganda. This vast web of “influencers” has been so successful that nowadays Putin is one of the most respected leaders for large segments of European public opinion, Rouhani and Khamenei are seen as moderate reformist leaders, and even Assad is considered as a viable answer for the future of Syria.
The positive atmosphere around a “Special Partnership” seemed to evaporate in July 2013, when the EU Guidelines established the ineligibility of European funds for Israelis in the territories, and again in 2014, when a European Court removed Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations. European criticism against new constructions in the West Bank came up again, drawing caustic remarks from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, such as “Israel is strong and simply doesn’t need Europe,” or “the EU Court decision will make Europe irrelevant.” The massacre at the Hypercacher and Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the rising number of anti-Semitic events, and the appeal launched by Prime Minister Netanyahu encouraging French Jews to emigrate to Israel added new tones to a cooling trend vis a vis the partnership.
The “Special Partnership” needs to be put back into the center of EU-Israel relations. While it is time to give substance to common security and political objectives, scientific cooperation is an important stepping stone. European and Israeli scientists have fought hard to bring Brussels and Jerusalem to sign the “Horizon 2020 Framework.” The opportunities were proven by a Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum, which put Israel at the very top positions in a list of 144 countries for “innovation “and “sophistication.”