EU needs to act now to avoid diplomatic ‘war of the roses’

To say the Israeli government is neuralgic about any comments coming from Europe would be a massive understatement.

By DAFNA FRIEDMAN
December 14, 2015 21:35
3 minute read.
Netanyahu Mogherini

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosts European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in Jerusalem, May 20. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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There wasn’t much Hanukka cheer or warmth to be had in the EU Ambassador’s Office in Tel Aviv this week.

It all started when Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen gave an interview with ultra-Orthodox Kol Hai Radio. In a mistranslation of his words, the radio station reported that he had made a distinction between terrorism affecting Europe and terrorism in Israel.

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Cue a blisteringly furious response from the Foreign Ministry.

“Islamic State’s terrorism wants to destroy Europe, and Palestinian terrorism wants to destroy Israel,” the ministry statement read. “The comments of the EU ambassador represent a double standard regarding the terrorism that threatens all of us.”

You could feel the heat of the words here in Brussels.

But what the ambassador actually said was somewhat different. He said that dealing with Islamic State, on the one hand, and teenagers armed with scissors and knives, on the other, required a different set of approaches – which is not an unreasonable response by any stretch of the imagination.

But it’s sadly and, to an extent, understandably indicative of the serious strain in diplomatic ties between the EU and Israel, following the labeling guidelines and a repeated refusal by the EU to hold Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to account over his incitement to violence and his unwillingness to condemn the ongoing stabbing attacks, that Faaborg-Andersen got the political equivalent of third-degree burns from the ministry.

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To say the Israeli government is neuralgic about any comments coming from Europe would be a massive understatement.

Such is the sensitivity and deep-rooted sense of mistrust that anything, even if it taken out of context, will be slapped down.

As a result the EU-Israel relationship is beginning to feel like the War of the Roses movie.

As the EU ambassador licks his political wounds in his office, I wonder if he has asked himself the following question: Were the Labeling guidelines worth such a huge diplomatic and political falling- out? With a growing number of parliamentary voices in European countries, not to mention Greece and Hungary, distancing themselves from the guidelines and refusing to implement them, the answer would have to be no.

The chasm between EU-Israel relations and US-Israel relations currently looks wider than the Atlantic Ocean which separates them.

President Barack Obama welcomed President Reuven Rivlin (who incidentally canceled his planned trip to Brussels in December in protest against the labeling law) to the White House for Hanukka, heaping praise on the Jewish people and likening the Hanukka story to the upcoming Star Wars movie.

“All of us come together along with Jews around the world to celebrate a band of Maccabees who inspire us even today,” said Obama. “They were outnumbered, out-armed, yet proved freedom can prevail over tyranny, hope can triumph over despair, light can prevail over darkness.

That sounds like a description of the new Star Wars movie, but this one happened a little earlier,” joked Obama, receiving a loud round of applause.

WHAT DOES this contrast show us? Simply that the EU needs to start rebuilding bridges with Israel. And fast.

Only a few months ago many commentators were devoting acres of coverage to what they saw as the doomed relationship between Israel and the US prompted by the Iran deal.

So I believe that the EU-Israel relationship is ultimately salvageable, but the EU needs to put down the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions playbook favored by some of its civil servants, it needs to move away from the impertinent politics of the stick, and lastly it needs to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a realistic prism, not through rose-tinted spectacles or, as currently perceived by many in Israel, as a one-sided pro-Palestinian narrative.

But it’s going to take time. It’s going to take a back-to-the-drawing-board rethink, not to say a herculean effort by people like Faaborg-Andersen to undo the damage of a so far misguided EU diplomatic strategy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dog Kaiya managed to bite two people at a Hanukka reception Wednesday night at the premier’s official residence in Jerusalem.

The way things are right now, it’s probably best if the EU ambassador stays away from the residence for a while and starts work on a much-needed diplomatic reboot right now.

The author is communications and campaigns officer for Europe Israel Public Affairs.

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