The European Union is facing the largest challenge in its history, in the form of mass migration and significantly heightened security threats.
As a result, it is engaged in a fateful quest to reconcile a growing clash between its values and interests, scrambling to preserve its liberal and free spirit and, at the same time, meet unprecedented terrorist challenges.
Within these tectonic changes, Israel plays a minor yet complex role. European governments and security officials are tightening cooperation with Jerusalem, but in the arena of public opinion Israel still largely bears the brunt of criticism, which centers on a perceived failure by Israel to create a coherent policy aimed at resolving the Palestinian issue.
However, European opinion shapers are far less preoccupied these days with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as they seek to tackle the urgent issues on their own doorsteps.
Over the past three years, migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa have flocked to Europe – a consequence of ongoing wars, and enormous global economic and social inequality.
It is difficult to fully grasp the difference in the quality of life in Europe compared to those regions, particularly as wars and unrest continue to ravage Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas, increasing Europe’s magnetic pull on migrants and refugees. Entire populations that have given up hope of development in their homelands are pulled toward Europe, lured by the promise of security, employment and state-backed social and public services, as well as individual freedoms.
If the waves of migration continue, European countries such as Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Sweden and others will not resemble their former selves, and their character will be permanently altered. Therefore, Europeans are now facing unprecedented tension between the universal values the EU takes much pride in, and the growing need to preserve themselves.
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This tension is leading to the rise of far-right parties, which call for drastic steps to counter migration. Yet even among mainstream parties and voices, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there is a realization that the current trend cannot continue.
Members of the 28-member EU – soon to be 27 with the exit of the UK – are increasingly rebelling against the common decision-making spirit of the EU.
Britain is the most extreme example of this. There can be no doubt that the processes described above prompted the British public to vote as it did on the EU referendum. Britain rejected the decision-making process imposed upon it from Brussels, which tried to push the UK toward openness to migration.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is pursuing anti-migration policies to counter the flow of people moving through his country. Hungary has rejected the EU’s proposal for refugees to be settled among all member states. Instead, he has constructed a border fence with Serbia to prevent the entrance of more refugees.
Croatia – also an EU member – is also threatening to construct a border barrier with Serbia.
So, as 2017 looms, the EU still finds itself speaking of open borders, yet its individual members are increasingly calling for the closing of borders and the building of fences.
Serbia, a small country in the process of negotiating its admittance to the EU, is facing an impossible reality.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have passed through its territory. Serbia does not wish to jeopardize its EU candidacy with drastic counter-steps, but also rejects the idea that it will become a “dumping territory” for Europe. This might happen if the EU shuts its doors to further waves of migration from the Middle East.
On a recent visit to Serbia, an official told me that on average, some 3,000 refugees arrive daily trying to move on to Croatia and Hungary (and from there, to Austria and Germany). This relatively poor country will not be able to cope if the doors to Europe close.
The migration crisis encompasses within it a tangible security threat; Islamic State (ISIS) can – and does – plant terrorists within the waves of innocent refugees.
France has already sustained mass casualty attacks by ISIS operatives, some of whom reportedly reached Paris via refugee transit routes.
Germany experienced its first suicide bomb attack last summer when a Syrian national detonated himself in Anbash.
Jihadist operatives who receive training and indoctrination in Middle Eastern battlefields can enter Europe and become sleeper cells, before launching crippling attacks in the heart of the EU when ordered to do so.
Alternatively, some ISIS volunteers who return to their home countries in Europe can merge with local radical elements and launch attacks together with them. This encounter would be disastrous. As ISIS loses ground in northern Iraq and Syria, so grows its motivation to carry out terrorist attacks in the West – and in Europe in particular. A major part of European intelligence efforts will have to be directed toward preventing this scenario.
As these changes play out, Israel has a minor yet tangible role, sharing highly advanced intelligence capabilities that can contribute significantly to European security.
Yet in the arena of public opinion, shaped by the media and intellectual elites, Israel’s image is not likely to significantly improve in Europe.
Israelis who had hoped for more understanding of the challenges they face because of their location in the heart of the Middle East are in for a disappointment.
Israel desires a more sympathetic view from Europe, a better understanding of the terrorism it is exposed to from radical Islamic extremist organizations like Hamas, and international legitimacy for the measures it takes. I doubt that these expectations will be met.
What has, however changed, is the place this issue holds in Europe’s priority ladder.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict once held a high-priority status in Europe, but now, with major new challenges underway, the conflict has been pushed aside for more urgent and immediate concerns.
Nevertheless, Israel and its affairs will continue to attract the interest of Europe.
Europe still holds that it has an interest in seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved, and still believes that it is affected by surges of violence along this fault line.
Now, however, it will be far busier dealing with its own rapidly evolving crises than ever before.The author is a former ambassador and Director-General of the Foreign Ministry.
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