Diplomacy: Forging ties or Gordian knots?

Despite apathy over European relations, an EU decision to upgrade ties with Israel was viewed positively.

EU Foreign Ministers  (photo credit: )
EU Foreign Ministers
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Britain this week, his third trip abroad since becoming a lame duck in September with the election of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as Kadima's new chairman, didn't make much news. Perhaps it was because the horrific bus accident near Eilat on the day Olmert met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pushed everything to the side; perhaps because with one leg out the door, his foreign jaunts seem more like farewell laps than critical diplomatic meetings; perhaps because the press - already looking ahead at who will be the country's next leader - did not, for the most part, accompany him to London. Whatever the reason, for the vast majority of the public, Olmert's going to London was a huge yawn. Which, to a certain extent - and rather unjustifiably - also sums up the country's overall attitude to its relationship with the European Union. US-Israel ties are watched closely by many, as they are considered critical to the country's survival. A great deal of attention is also paid to ties with Russia, partly because of the concern that Moscow could, if it wished, cause us enormous problems. But our relations with the EU seem to evince a "who cares?" attitude. This sentiment was manifest last week when the EU's decision to grant Israel a significant political upgrade did not make much of a media splash. Granted, the event was covered in the mainstream press, but nobody made too big a deal over that decision to essentially formalize and institutionalize an impressive political dialogue. The decision calls for ad hoc summit meetings between our prime minister and all EU heads of government, something that has never taken place before, and will afford Israel a tremendous opportunity to present its case. The upgrade calls for our foreign minister to meet together with all 27 EU foreign ministers three times a year. It calls for a strategic dialogue to discuss issues such as Iran, the diplomatic process and Syria. It calls for the inclusion of Israel in EU peacekeeping forces, and for an EU commitment to help us better integrate into UN agencies. These are no trifling matters. Nevertheless, the thrust of the stories on the upgrade centered on the fact that the decision was made over the active objections of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, especially PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, who argued that Israel was getting an upgrade in its relations with the EU "for free," without paying anything on the ground in terms of improving the lot of the Palestinians. THE POLITICAL upgrade is the first chapter in a series of upgrades in numerous fields that are being hammered out, among them trade, transportation, energy and culture. These upgrades, 10 in all, will make possible Israeli participation in a wide variety of EU programs that were previously closed to it. The political upgrade is also significant as a measure of how far our relations with the EU have traveled over the last two decades. If some 20 years ago no one in the government would have dreamed of letting Europe gain a toehold in the region, because of a deeply held belief here that the Europeans were one-sided and biased in the Arab-Israeli conflict, now - according to Yossi Gal, the Foreign Ministry's senior deputy director-general - the Europeans are deeply involved at most of the country's key strategic intersections. "Today the EU is involved in the major strategic issues facing Israel, and it is good to have a better dialogue with them," said Gal, reeling off these strategic intersections: part of the Quartet; the major donor to the Palestinian Authority; EU COPPS helping build the PA security apparatus; UNIFIL in southern Lebanon; and the involvement of Britain, France and Germany in the P5 +1 talks - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany - with the Iranians. Since the EU is involved in all these issues, he said, it is important for Israel to have a more intensive dialogue with the Europeans. Gal, who was closely involved in bringing about the upgrade since it was first considered in 2007, when Germany held the rotating presidency of the EU, rattled off with a degree of pride everything Israel is getting from the upgrade, from the summit with the EU prime ministers, to biennial meetings of the Foreign Ministry's director-general with the EU's ambassadors to Brussels, to a framework for the strategic dialogue. And all this, he said, without linking any of it to the diplomatic process, as the PA and Egypt wanted. A reading of the agreement does, however, intimate a linkage to a continuation of the diplomatic process, but it is only a very general linkage. There is no clause stating, for example, that EU heads of state will only meet the prime minister if settlement building stops. Rather, the document says the upgrade should be "conceived and viewed in the context of the full range of our common interests and objectives. These include, inter alia, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through implementation of the solution based on the coexistence of two states, the promotion of peace, prosperity and stability in the Middle East and the search for joint answers to challenges which could threaten these goals." The upgrade is taking place within the context of negotiations with the Palestinians and acceptance of a two-state solution. What would happen if the negotiations completely broke down is anyone's guess. Certain EU countries - such as Ireland, Cyprus, Malta and, to a certain degree, Britain - were in favor of closer linkage between the upgrade and what was happening on the ground, but because such EU powerhouses as Germany and France were behind the upgrade without strings attached, the motion passed without the linkage. Listening to Gal list what Israel gained by the upgrade, one was left wondering what the price was; what we had to pay to get what he presented as an impressive array of diplomatic gestures. But Gal rejected this premise, not accepting the assumption that everything had a price. He said that instead of Israel having to pay anything for the upgrade, the upgrade served the interests of both Israel and the EU. What we were giving the EU for better political dialogue was, in Gal's way of thinking, better political dialogue for the EU. Gal pointed out that this country was a large market for EU goods, indeed the largest in the region, and that our technological prowess was something that benefited the EU. According to Rafi Barak, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for Europe, the relationship with the EU started to change dramatically with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Up until that point, Barak said, the EU's main preoccupation was with the Soviet Union, and the challenges and threats from the east. But then, when the Iron Curtain crumbled, the EU looked south, and realized that the challenges were coming from there. It wanted influence, to be a player, and for that it needed to have a dialogue with Israel. So all of a sudden the EU-Israel relationship became, in Barak's words, "a two-way boulevard." The EU wanted involvement in the region, a place around the table regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Jerusalem wanted to strengthen bilateral ties with the EU. Each side had to pay something to the other. If the EU wanted involvement, it would have to strengthen bilateral ties; if Israel wanted stronger bilateral ties, it had to let the EU into the region. THE POLITICAL upgrade, however, is just that: a political upgrade. Israel's dilemma in Europe is that while it has succeeded to a large degree in finding sympathetic ears in key governments - such as France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Denmark and, albeit with some glitches recently, Britain - it continues to have problems with the masses. The problem from Jerusalem's standpoint is getting that governmental goodwill to filter down to the people, and that is something which - for a variety of reasons - has turned out to be a difficult chore. "The generation of Europeans who have come to kibbutzim is over," Barak said, in a reference to visiting Austrian President Heinz Fischer and those from his generation, who formed a positive impression of the state when they volunteered to work in kibbutz orchards and chicken coops in years past. Fischer volunteered on Kibbutz Sarid some 45 years ago. "We are missing a generation," Barak said, "and have to figure out how to get them back here." Until that formula is worked out, solace can be had in Jerusalem at the political upgrade, for if Israel is finding it hard to win over the hearts of the people of Europe, the political upgrade will at least give it greater access to the ears and minds of the leaders.