Stumbling blocks to European Union membership such as the possibility that Israel might have to drop its Law of Return or the fact that Israel is physically located on the Asian continent have not deterred Israel Beiteinu head and Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman from pushing to make what many would call a "pipe dream" into reality within the next five years. While the Israeli has not formally asked for membership in the 27 member body of European states and the EU does not view it as a possibility at this time, Lieberman has still put it high on his agenda for security, economic and cultural reasons.
Lieberman's JPost blog: We need to be part of EU, NATO
On Thursday, Lieberman is set to debate the matter with the European Union's Ambassador to Israel Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal on the Russian television station RTV1.
Lieberman's interest in the issue leaves EU officials in Brussels shaking their heads.
"Accession is not an option now," said Christian Leffler, the outgoing director of the Middle East and Southern Mediterranean Department for the European Commission in Brussels.
Joining the EU as a member state would likely mean that Israel would have to drop one of the key cornerstones of the its identity as a Jewish state, the Law of Return, which grants immediate citizenship to Jews only, said Leffler. As a result, he said, it is unlikely that Israel would even want to join the union.
"I'm not sure the Israeli government or Israeli public opinion would be ready to take on everything that membership means," Leffler told The Jerusalem Post during a recent visit to Israel.
To become a EU member, one has to balance a complex set of rights and obligations that reach quite far into society, said Leffler. Laws that would have to be changed or amended could include those that govern immigration, the free movement of people and services as well as civil liberties, he said.
Israel, for example, he said, would have to open its doors to workers from the EU who would want to come and live here, Leffler said.
There would also be some problematic military issues such as the policy of targeted assassinations, a tactic that Israel has used in Gaza and the Palestinian territories to eliminate terrorists, Leffler said.
Moreover, there is the basic physical reality that Israel is located on a different continent altogether, he noted.
"Geography is a challenge," said Leffler as he stated the obvious. "You are not in Europe."
It's true, he said, that the laws which govern admittance into the EU, including those that relate to citizenship and free movement of people, can be and have been challenged in court. But he warned it could be a long and cumbersome process.
To date, he said, no country has been accepted for membership that has been outside the continent. He added that it was his understanding that there were laws that restricted membership to countries geographically located within the European continent.
The EU, for example, rejected a membership bid by Morocco on the grounds that it was not a European country.
It's also unclear if the European Union wants to become larger at this time, said Leffler. The EU is still working to integrate the 10 new members who joined in 2004 and the additional ones that entered the union this month.
"It is creaking under the weight of its own success," said Leffler.
None of these facts have deterred Lieberman from his pursuit of the matter.
In spite of the high value that he has placed on Israel's identity as a Jewish state, he is not concerned by the potential conflict between EU membership and the Law of Return. Nor is he stopped by the possibility that Israel would have to amend its laws to allow for an influx of Europeans including Muslim citizens of the continent to live and work here.
He and one of his advisers both told the Post they believed that Israel could hold on to the Law of Return and join the EU. His adviser said there were a number of EU countries with citizenship and immigration restrictions that were similar to those of Israel. Legal exceptions, he said, could be made which would allow Israel to hold on to the restrictions that it needs to maintain its character as a Jewish state.
Lieberman told the Post that he was drawn by the cultural and democratic link that exists between Israel and the EU, as well as the economic and security benefits that would be gained from such a union.
Given the strained and hostile relations Israel has with its neighbors, it would do better to position itself as a member of a group of nations with whom it more naturally belongs. That's particularly true in light of the terrorist threat that equally threatens both Israel and Europe, he said.
He also defended his position in a blog entry he wrote for the Post earlier this month.
"Today's world is dividing over values. On the one side is the free, democratic world, and on the other side is the radical, fundamentalist world.
"We might have disagreements with Europe and the international community over foreign policy, but we share the same values system that is the target of the radical, fundamentalist war against the West," Lieberman wrote.
Moreover, Israel is physically very close to Europe, said Lieberman. At its nearest point, "The EU is only half-an-hour away from Israel," Lieberman said.
Still, Israel's former ambassador to the European Union and academic expert on European affairs Avi Primor dismissed the notion with a laugh.
"It's ridiculous," Primor told the Post. Israel has not asked to be a member of the European Union. It would not want to be and the Union would not accept it as a candidate, Primor said.
The notion gets revived once in a while but only by Israeli politicians, "to make themselves sound interesting."
"We are not ready for it and we are not ripe for it," said Primor.
But the idea has the support of legal expert Amnon Rubinstein from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Rubinstein, like Lieberman, is a fan of Israel attaining EU membership. More to the point, he told the Post, it was possible from a legal perspective.
Israel may have to amend some aspects of its immigration policy, but it could hold on to the Law of Return, Rubinstein said.
The EU rule of equality on citizenship issues is not applied across the board to European countries. A number of these countries, such as Greece, Germany and Finland, have their own version of a law which prioritizes the return of ethnic groups from those countries.
More to the point, he said, the rule of equality doesn't apply to immigration and naturalization unless you discriminate against a certain group. It is acceptable to use special legislation to favor repatriation, Rubinstein said.
"I would like Israel to become part of the European family of nations," Rubinstein said.
It would give Israel added validity as a country if it joined the EU and it would make it harder for countries like Iran to threaten to attack it, said Rubinstein.
There are those in the EU who believe that culture and economics, rather than geography, should be a test for membership, said Rubinstein. From that perspective, Israel is a better fit than some of the new members, he said.
When he was in Israel at the Seventh Annual Herzliya conference earlier this month, former Spanish prime minister Jose Marie Aznar said, "Israel is located in the Middle East but it is not part of the Middle East, it is part of the West."
Tommy Steiner, the executive secretary of the Atlantic Forum, an advocacy group that pushes for closer ties between Israel and Europe and NATO, however, said that even though Israel was a good candidate for membership it didn't mean that it should pursue that course.
In the short term, it's not feasible, he said. One needs only to look at Turkey, which first applied for membership 20 years ago, but has yet to succeed in that endeavor, Steiner added.
Israel would do better to strengthen and expand its already existing ties without actually joining the EU, Steiner said. He noted, for example, that Norway and Switzerland have close ties with the EU but are not member states.
"I think that there is potential for a considerable upgrade of relations," he said.
There would be a potential monetary price, said Steiner, who added that Israel today is the only country in the world that has free trade agreements with both the US and Europe. But if Israel joined the EU it could jeopardize its free trade agreement with the United States, he said.
"Gaining acceptance is always far more difficult" than using already existing institutions, said Leffler.
He said that there were a number of avenues that Israel already uses to strengthen ties with Europe such as the Association Agreement which was fully put in place in 2000, and which allows for free trade between Israel and the EU. In 2006, for example, Israel exported $10 billion worth of goods and imported $14 billion from the EU.
In addition, there is an Action Plan of 2005 that exists under the European Neighborhood Policy that helps implement and augment the Association Agreement.
The Action Plan of the ENP offers economic, cultural and governmental cooperation across a broad range of issues including terrorism, the environment, education, trade, health, culture, economics, and even allows for Israel and the EU to work on joint strategies to combat anti-Semitism.
That Action Plan, is "the best vehicle you have now" to move closer to the EU, Leffler said. Similar plans exist with 17 other countries that border Europe, but "There is no other country in this region that is better able to take advantage of the ENP than Israel," said Leffler.
Many of the ENP countries still have to develop market economies and build democratic structures before they can take full advantage of the program, Leffler said.
Israel, in contrast, already has the elements it needs to fully utilize the program, he said. In that sense, Israel is already an equal partner with Europe, Leffler added. "You have relations with us that are of the same kind that Switzerland, Norway and Iceland have."