One of the most common observations from visitors to Israel is how "European" it feels. Let us be honest: It's unmistakably Israel, unmistakably Jewish and yet take a walk in Tel Aviv, or around Mamila in Jerusalem and it feels like, well, Europe. The reason for this is simple. Israel's people share more in common culturally and democratically with the EU than with their closest neighbors. Travel across the border to Jordan, or Syria and you are - unmistakably in the Middle-East.
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Israel shares common bonds with the EU, socially, economically and politically. Sadly, because of its unique position in the world these bonds are often not recognized, or worse yet, simply ignored.
At its most basic level, my work as Chairman of the European Friends of Israel (EFI), and that of the EFI team, is to highlight these bonds, build on them and ultimately cement them.
Our mission is simple: Israel needs greater EU support for the continuing challenges it faces over the coming years.
But it's not all one way traffic. EFI seeks to improve and foster an environment in which both Israel and the EU's commercial interests are enhanced and prospered. We aim to increase the number of Europeans who share our aims and we encourage them to take individual political action. EFI, however, differs from the classic pro-Israel grassroots NGOs model in one crucial aspect: As EFI focuses mainly on elected political representatives, it brings together every Israel-friendly parliamentary group from across the 28 EU Member States, together with a core of support within the European Parliament from every political hue. With some one thousand members of Parliament from all of Europe’s mainstream political parties, this makes us one of the largest pan-European parliamentary groups of its kind.
The Steering Committee of EFI includes all the chairmen of the main parliamentarian associations across Europe - relationships that we have worked hard to foster. The Political Board of EFI at the European Parliament includes Members of the European Parliament who hold remarkably high levels of diplomatic skills.
I, as a proud member of the Socialist and Democrats Group, have the pleasure to chair the EFI board, having replaced Gunnar Hökmark (Sweden | EPP) in September 2011.
The Members of the Political Board of EFI come from different political and geographical backgrounds. Each has their own motivation for taking part in EFI's activity.
Helga Trüpel MEP (Germany | Greens) is the vice-chair of the European Parliament's Education and Culture Committee: "I am a friend of Israel because after the crimes committed by Nazi Germany I feel that the existence and security of the state of Israel is my political responsibility. I support a two state solution, with a democratic Palestinian and a democratic Jewish state of Israel serving as the basis for peace in the Middle East."
As part of EFI's public activity, MEP Trüpel hosted MK Dr. Einat Wilf, who spoke on women's rights in Israel in the conference held in European Parliament in April 2012.
On a different side of the political spectrum you can find Alejo Vidal-Quadras MEP (Spain | EPP), Vice President of the European Parliament: " As part of my work with the European Friends of Israel group inside the European Parliament, I recently had the pleasure of hosting a conference on Iran, the bomb and its implications not just for Israel, but also for the European Union. This reminded me of the close democratic and cultural values that the EU shares with Israel and, in turn, the great potential for assisting one another."
These are just two supportive views within a rich tapestry that has been created by our parliamentarians. Like the differing political parties that they represent, no two views are the same, other than a steely determination to see Israel continue to succeed.
As always there are challenges ahead, arguments to win and awareness to be raised. It would be remiss of me to paint a picture of perfect European Parliamentary solidarity with the State of Israel. Far from it, the EU institutions can waver between support, indifference and outright hostility towards Israel.
My job is to take this fluctuating political pulse and, working with the parliamentarians, to suggest initiatives that can lead to parliamentary support for Israel. For Instance, Israel, as a world leader in medicines and other pharmaceutical products successfully signed a technical trade agreement with the EU that has made cheaper products available for EU citizens. In these times of austerity, where cutbacks are biting into health service provision, this is a win-win for Israel and Europe. However, some MEPs had sought assurances that no products from disputed territories should come into the European Market. This involved delicate negotiations as we brought together representatives from the State of Israel and our parliamentarians, to find common ground and ensure that the agreement was signed and importantly a dialogue had taken place between two equal partners to find a mutually acceptable resolution.
We work on counter boycott strategies, PR initiatives. We invite parliamentarians from Israel to share ideas and exchange information, we organize conferences, hearings and exhibitions. We seek nothing other than a fair hearing for the State of Israel and its people. But there is always more to do.
Iran in particular is an area where we need to up our game. With the recent signing of the EU-led international agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear profile, we hope, as do the people of Israel and Europe, that this will bring a peaceful conclusion to a tumultuous chapter in Iranian history. However, our job in the coming weeks is: to provide information and updates to the parliament of the remaining issues with Iran; to remind Europe of Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict and the violence in Iraq, as well as its support and funding of the EU designated terror organizations Hezbollah and Hamas.
EFI then, is something completely different. We do not seek a homogenous supportive position towards Israel or blind obedience to the Israeli government line. Instead we seek and positively welcome differing views, differing positions and differing voices that all contribute, like instruments in an orchestra, to a harmonious ensemble of support. Each parliamentarian brings their own sound, to the narrative. Sometimes it gets noisy, sometimes it may sound a little off key, and sometimes it all comes together beautifully. We wouldn't have it any other way.
How very European, don't you think?”
Marek Siwiec is a Polish politician, Member of the European Parliament with the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, Vice-chairman of the centre-left party Twój Ruch (Your Move). Since September 2011 he has chaired the organization European Friends of Israel.