(photo credit: AP)
The Foreign Ministry has begun a strategic overhaul of relations with the EU and its member nations, increasingly "plugging into" EU institutions and, in turn, allowing Europe to play a greater role in Israeli diplomatic and economic processes, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
So central has Europe become to Israel's well-being, diplomatic officials have told the Post, that the Foreign Ministry believes it is time to reassess the Jewish state's traditional reliance on "two pillars" for Israeli survival: a strong IDF and an unbreakable alliance with America. Given the growing importance of the European Union in world events, and in the Middle East particularly, the officials said, a third pillar has become necessary: deepening ties to Europe.
"Increasingly, Europe is involved in everything that touches us: trade, the Palestinians, Iran, UNIFIL in Lebanon," said a senior Israeli diplomatic source. "They are in the [Middle East] Quartet, and central in many other areas. Developing a strong relationship with Europe is becoming the third pillar safeguarding Israel's survival."
Jerusalem's new strategy is to enhance cooperation with Europe in a variety of fields and to demonstrate that Israel can help with some of the EU's many interests in the region. To that end, Israel has in the past few weeks sent a detailed proposal to the European Union for negotiations on "significant" Israeli involvement with Europe in nine fields, including finance, education, environment, youth development, law enforcement, security cooperation and scientific research collaboration.
The plan comes on top of existing Israel-EU cooperation forums such as the Barcelona Process (established in 1995 to foster dialogue among EU member-states and countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean), the European Neighborhood Policy (which aims to offer deeper political relationships and economic integration between EU members and their immediate neighbors), the Galileo space program, and bilateral ties.
The EU is studying the new Israeli proposal and has promised to give Israel a preliminary answer by mid-March. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to meet with her European counterparts in June to try to finalize an agreement on the enhanced partnerships, the Post has learned.
Jerusalem is also seeking to deepen contact with Europe's growing Muslim communities - a source of hostility to Israel, but also, the Foreign Ministry believes, a potential bridge to better Jewish-Islamic relations and understanding. "Europe is becoming more and more Muslim, and we have identified a need to reach out to these populations," the diplomatic official said.
Israeli officials cite a change in relations with Europe following the 9/11 attacks, which "opened European eyes to the threats emanating from this region. They realized they had vital interests in this region, which is essentially their backyard."
Traditionally, Israel has relied overwhelmingly on its alliance with the US on questions of security and diplomacy, and officials stressed that the centrality of this relationship had not changed. Traditionally, too, Israel had been wary of over-involving Europe in fundamental survival issues. The relative marginalization of the EU, for instance, is emblemized by the fact that no serving Israeli prime minister has ever visited EU headquarters in Brussels on a formal diplomatic mission. "It's just never worked out," the diplomatic source said.
The reliance on Washington, indeed, has always been a strategic imperative, and has only grown more manifest as Israel and the Palestinians try to advance on the Annapolis-road map path to a permanent accord. Currently, as first reported by the Post, America, Israel and the Palestinians are working to formulate a plan under which NATO peacekeepers could be deployed in the West Bank if an agreement is reached and an Israeli withdrawal cannot otherwise be facilitated because of the inadequacy of the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus.
But Europe's role would be vital here, too: With NATO forces already deployed in areas such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, and with the bulk of US armed forces concentrated in Iraq, Europe would likely be asked to fill the ranks should a NATO-West Bank deployment materialize.
European troops are already deployed in the post-Second Lebanon War beefed-up UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon and have no immediate plans to end their mission. Last week, Spain dismissed a report in the Post in which Israeli defense officials expressed concern over Spain's commitment to UNIFIL ahead of the Spanish elections, pointing to the precedent of the withdrawal of Spanish forces from Iraq following the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the subsequent change of government there. Nevertheless, there remains a widespread sense within the Israeli diplomatic establishment that UNIFIL's strength and commitment would not withstand a serious challenge from Hizbullah.
Europe is also playing a role in efforts to bolster the PA's security capabilities. Alongside US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton's military advisers, who are playing the primary training role, 33 Canadian and European police advisers have recently started training their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank.
This new batch of advisers follows the European border monitors who were deployed at the Rafah crossing between Sinai and Gaza, but who retired to an Ashkelon hotel after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June. The monitors' mandate has not officially been repealed and they could be recalled to duty should Hamas allow their deployment in a deal between the PA and the Quartet. Their withdrawal when the situation deteriorated, however, underlined Israel's concerns about placing its security in the hands of international forces.
Jerusalem also believes stronger ties with Europe are important in mobilizing economic and diplomatic pressure on Teheran to thwart its nuclear drive. European politicians, especially those in Germany, Austria and Italy, were having a hard time convincing their businessmen and industrialists to sever or downgrade their economic ties with Teheran, the diplomatic source said, and Israel was consistently monitoring these efforts and pushing for their intensification.
"Many in those countries are still doing business with Iran, as evidenced by the latest OMV deal. Despite this, we are seeing some successes," the source said, adding that lobbying European politicians to pressure their industrialists to sanction Iran was "Israel's daily work." France and Britain were leading the diplomatic campaign against Iran, the official added. OMV is a large Austrian oil company, partially state-owned, which has entered into a $32 billion oil-rights deal with Iran.
Part of Israel's strategy to strengthen relations with Europe involves de-linking those ties from the vicissitudes of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israeli-European ties have tended to fluctuate parallel to progress, or the lack thereof, in negotiations with the Palestinians.
"The Europeans are, in general, not pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli; they are pro-peace process. Progress with the Palestinians has meant better relations with Europe," the Israeli diplomatic source said.
Finally, Israeli officials are upbeat about the prospects for economic and environmental reforms here should the country reach agreement on deepened cooperation with European agencies. "Important reform programs tied to increased global access are easier to sell than homegrown reforms, which are always mired in local political considerations," the source said.