‘A fascinating and challenging country’

Andrew Standley looks back at his four years as the European Union’s man in Israel

It can’t be easy being the European Union’s ambassador to Israel.
First, there is the heavy historical baggage Jews have with Europe.
Then there is the widespread Israeli perception that Europe will always – but always – side with the Palestinians for a wide variety of economic, political and sociological reasons.
And, of course, there is the Israeli tendency to discount anything the EU says with a dismissive, “Do the Europeans really have the moral right to preach to us?” If it is difficult to be the EU’s ambassador to Israel even in the best of times, in these times – following the publication over the summer of the EU’s settlement guidelines, which made operational in a very stark form Europe’s complete and utter opposition to any settlement anywhere at all beyond the 1967 lines – it is even more difficult as the country’s leaders rail against what is perceived as blatantly unfair European policies.
Yet Andrew Standley, the amiable EU envoy who left Israel at the end of August to take up the EU’s ambassadorial post in Mexico after a four-year stint in Tel Aviv, showed no great eagerness to leave the country.
On the contrary, in a parting interview just before he left, he looked back in admiration at what Israel has accomplished, warts and all.
Let’s start with your feelings about Israel. You have been here for four years, the relationship has been rocky.
I can say honestly it has been for me the most fascinating four year assignment I have had. I think Israel is unique, fascinating; it is a challenging country.
It was for me a rediscovery. In the 1970s I was here on various visits as a volunteer on different kibbutzim – in 1973, ’74, ’75 and 1980. My posting brought me back to the country after a 30-year absence, obviously a very different country; my last visit was in 1980. It made it all the more exciting for me to come and see how Israel had come and developed and evolved internally over the course of those 30 years. It had gone through very profound changes as a result of many factors.
What brought you here in the ’70s? Many, many young Europeans in the 1960s and 1970s looked at the kibbutz experience and Israel as a very exciting and interesting place. The kibbutz was appealing to many because of its uniqueness in the world.
It also provided an opportunity to live in a different environment, with great weather and usually a great group of people. So it was usually both fun and interesting. And I was part of that group. I came the first time when I was 17 – between high school and starting university.
Were you attracted by Israel, or the kibbutzim? It was a combination of both. I think that in those days what lodged most in people’s minds was the kibbutz, because it was seen as this new social model. People who were young and idealistic saw in the kibbutz an attempt to create a model of new social organization that was seen as very interesting. Israel was also seen as a country in the making, a progressive country, a new model in a way.
How did Israel lose that? I think first of all the kibbutz movement on its own changed, and decided that if they needed labor they would get it from other sources. I think one has to recognize that there was a change there, as countries mature, maybe some of the earlier idealism which they radiate changes and – if it is not lost – evolves over time. And that is reflected in the way people see the country from the outside.
I also think the continuous fact of the occupation [was a factor]. The settlement issue is of increasing concern to Europeans. When I came in 1973 the occupation was six years old, not even. The occupation’s effect was not deeply imprinted on the minds of many Europeans as it is now, 47 years later.
The fact is also that whereas Israel has continued to grow, develop and strengthen economically and militarily, the aspirations of the Palestinians for a state have not been fulfilled.
That contrast, which was not so evident or even clearly thought of in the minds of many Europeans in the ’60s and ’70s, is very much in the consciousness of Europeans now.
But when you were here in 1973 there was already an “occupation.”
In terms of international law the situation was exactly the same, but the settlement program had hardly begun.
It wasn’t an element that attracted so much attention, because there also was no discussion of a peace process, of a two-state solution.
Was there any one event that you could point to that changed European attitudes? I think it was largely an accumulation.
When you get intifadas erupting and playing in both directions – the targeting of civilians in Israel by terrorists obviously shocks European opinion profoundly – but in the longer historical terms an accumulation of concern that the situation is not moving in the direction of the achievement of what was thought to be the legitimate aspiration of Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side.
So how do you characterize the state of EU-Israel relations today, as you leave? My four years have coincided with a key element that affects the nature of our relationship: The Middle East peace process has not gone forward.
Now we have [US] Secretary of State [John] Kerry’s efforts and we really hope they move forward. But the four years that I have been here has coincided with a period of relative stagnation in that relationship, which – as we know and make quite clear publicly – affects the nature of the possibility of us to further develop our relationship with Israel. In 2008 a decision was taken at the political level to upgrade EU-Israel relations, but then as a result of the lack of progress in the peace process, that has been on hold.
We really are looking forward to when the upgrade, the deepening of EU-Israel relations, can be taken forward.
You have been here a long time and know the country well. What misconceptions does Israel harbor toward the EU? I detect an increasing feeling that the EU is somehow hostile or anti-Israel and pro-Palestine. We are pro-Palestinian absolutely and are pro-Israel absolutely.
I know the historical context, and I can fully empathize with people who look at Europe with admiration, but whose history colors the way they think about Europe. I fully appreciate and understand that and it is to be expected. But I think it is a very deep misconception and fundamentally wrong to believe that Europe and its existence now in 2013 is somehow anti- Israel.
Europe would like Israel to be strong, prosperous and peaceful, in the same way that it would hope that the Palestinians would get the opportunity in their own state for prosperity and strength.
The second misconception is the oft-quoted remark that Europe is a payer and not a player. If you want to see the silver lining in the [EU settlement guidelines] cloud, it is that it has brought into the forefront and attention of the wider Israeli public just how important Israel’s cooperation with Europe is. People have been focusing very much on the scientific and technological cooperation – how important that is to Israel. And that is not the characteristic of someone who is a payer, not a player.
I think that the fact that our scientific operations are so important to academia, business, research, universities in Israel, speaks for itself. It is also very important for Europe to be able to continue to engage with Israel, and we hope that will be the case.
Also the fact that the EU is Israel’s principal trading partner. These are elements that point so clearly to the fact that the EU is not some kind of marginal check signing entity that somehow pays for Palestinians to develop their institutions for statehood.
It also contributes in a mutually beneficial way to the fundamental development of Israel.
I don’t think people understand just how important and central Europe is in trading, research and technological terms – in the things that really made the economy move forward, and provide development for Israeli citizens.
How about the other way around? What are the European misconceptions of Israel? One of the things that has struck me is that, seen from the outside, you have this David-and-Goliath situation.
You have had this historical reversal of the Israeli David in the 1940s and 1950s having become over time the Goliath, and the Palestinians converted into David.
There is this view of Israel as this very strong, secure place with one of the world’s most effective military establishments.
So there is this perception that Israel is not really under any threat. You don’t need to spend a lot of time in Israel to realize – quite reasonably – that the average Israeli feels insecure.
Israelis understandably feel that they are living on the brink and that there are huge forces that still are committed to their elimination. In Europe, people fail to understand sufficiently how real that is.
Unfortunately, alongside the vision of this extremely strong military, there are the images on television of how the military plays a role in the occupation.
Pictures are worth a thousand words and have a huge effect, and that brings into people’s homes in Europe a visual representation, a visual depiction of a reality of the occupation that is extremely disturbing to most Europeans. And that creates in the minds of people a tension, or misunderstanding, or confusion.
I also think that Israeli attitudes towards the peace process, and towards Palestinian aspirations, are not necessarily well understood.
I continue to believe that a great majority of Israelis would welcome a settlement of the conflict, would welcome – under certain provisions – the existence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I think maybe in Europe the prevalent image is of Israel, or an Israeli people, that has no interest in the peace process.
What do you say to those who argue that – because of traditional anti-Semitism, Europeans’ colonial past, or the rise of a Muslim population – Israel cannot get a fair shake in Europe? I don’t know how those elements play, or will play in the future. But I am absolutely certain that in terms of policy-making it is much more balanced...
I think that on the whole attitudes toward Israel are this mixture of admiration for its achievements, recognition of what a special country it is in terms of what it has been able to accomplish, how far it has gone in just 65 years, together with these images of an occupation that is not only going on too long, but is affecting people on a daily basis in ways that it is very difficult for Europeans to understand.
You get some people who are 100 percent for Israel, and will not hear any criticism; and you have plenty of people who belong in the other camp.
I think the great majority are in the middle, where their images of Israel, their thinking of Israel, are colored by those two different elements.
There is real admiration, but also real concern. Take the settlement issue, there is a very basic question in people’s mind: Why is it necessary, why did it have to happen, why does it continue? What sentiments do you take with you from Israel as you leave? I’m leaving with a feeling of the incredible vibrancy of Israel. This is a complicated, challenging country, one where there is this restless spirit of never accepting things as they are, of always wanting to move and change.
That is something manifest in every moment and every breath the country takes.
Sometimes it is infuriating, but it is incredibly exciting and enriching.
People from Europe who come to Israel for the first time have no idea what it is like. They think it is a place where you are not safe. They know that the buses are not blowing up every day, so they know that the insecurity in the streets is not ongoing at the moment. But I think they are absolutely shocked in a positive way when they arrive in Tel Aviv and see this incredibly bustling, vibrant, open place, where you can walk nearly the entire city with a sense of near absolute security, much more than in most European capitals or big cities. That comes as a real surprise.
Also this huge diversity of opinion.
This is a country where you have a really strong presence of extreme conservative elements, and also of the extreme Left. You have Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the world with great levels of tolerance and acceptance. This is a very complex society shot into a very, very small space, and I think for most people in Europe when they arrive here as visitors or on business or on official travel it is a real eye-opener, and that is something that is not widely understood.
I am going to miss many things, I am going to miss the friends we made here. I have met some absolutely wonderful people. It is a country with many people who, for often tragic reasons, have incredible personal family histories to tell, histories that are unimaginable to many people in Europe. And when you have the privilege and honor to talk to some of these people, to get their stories, it is absolutely incredible, and really makes you feel humble. That out of that has arisen a country that is as dynamic and diverse as it is, and which has remained a democracy, despite all the challenges it has faced over its 65 years.