Benjamin Netanyahu is not the only one who can strut on the world’s stage.
That is one of Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s campaign messages. He sent that message two weeks ago at the United Nations, where not only was he the first Israeli prime minister since 2008 to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but where he also comported himself with aplomb in addressing the world body.
And he will be sending that message on Monday, when he is slated to attend in Brussels the first EU-Association Council Meeting in a decade. He can only hope that the EU doesn’t gum up the works by falling back on patterns of the past and reflexively blasting Israel for the current violence in Judea and Samaria.
Lapid meeting the EU can help or harm him, depending on the headlines
A photo op of a beaming Lapid shaking hands with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and some of the union’s 27 foreign ministers can be used by Yesh Atid in its campaign to show that the prime minister is shoring up Israel’s ties with traditional allies.
However, if the headlines are of the EU slamming Israel for a “disproportionate use of force” in trying to stem the recent terrorist tide, or adopting all of the Palestinians’ talking points in drawing up its conclusions on the “Middle East peace process,” then that won’t help Lapid with the Israeli electorate.
The EU leaders undoubtedly understand this. The ascension of Lapid to power was a factor in their decision in the summer to renew these meetings, so they will obviously be loath to do anything that might complicate matters for him politically. But still, countries such as Ireland, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Malta and Luxembourg might find it hard to overcome their blame-Israel-first instincts and sanctimoniously slap Israel for behavior they find unbecoming, all the while ignoring critical context.
There are voices out there encouraging them to do just that. For instance, Human Rights Watch, which when it comes to Israel has turned into a Palestinian propaganda tool, called on the EU at the Association Council meeting to “condemn Israeli authorities’ crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
It is very unlikely that the EU will take this advice, which is a good thing. Because if it would blame Israel in a one-sided manner for the violence or the stalemate in the diplomatic process, as it has done so frequently in the past – or if it adopts the Palestinian demands as a baseline from which to start negotiations – then it will once again remove itself from Middle East diplomacy, because Jerusalem simply will not take it seriously, and any actor that wants a role in the process needs to be taken seriously by Jerusalem.
Why does the EU want to reset ties with Israel?
The decision taken by the EU earlier this year to re-establish the Association Council is a signal that the union is interested in resetting its relationship with Jerusalem.
There are several reasons for this, including a new government in Jerusalem much more palatable to Brussels than Netanyahu’s, as well as Europe’s gas woes resulting from the war in Ukraine and its desperate need to diversify its suppliers.
If in the past Israel was highly dependent on the EU for markets, the EU now needs Israel for something as well: gas. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made that clear during a visit here in June.
“The Kremlin’s behavior only strengthens our resolve to break free of our dependence on Russian fossil fuels,” she said in a speech. “For instance, we are exploring ways to step up our energy cooperation with Israel.”
While Israel is not in a position to deliver large quantities of gas to Europe in the immediate future, neither via an underwater pipeline nor through Egypt, the discovery of gas off the coast is forcing some Europeans to look at Israel differently than in the past.
What is the EU-Israel Association and why did it stop meeting?
The EU-Israel Association was established in 1995 to enhance cooperation between the two sides, and each year an Association Council meeting was to be held to discuss issues of mutual interest. This council was the highest-level forum setting the direction of EU-Israel ties.
In 2013, Israel canceled the planned meeting to protest an EU decision to differentiate in all its agreements with Israel between areas within the Green Line and the settlements. The following year, the meeting was canceled again at the request of some EU states protesting Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. No meeting has been held since.
The failure of this body to meet for a decade reflected a wider problem in the EU’s ties with Israel under former foreign policy czars Catherine Ashton and Frederica Mogherini: the Europeans’ insistence on linking an upgrading of bilateral relations with Israel on its compliance with the EU’s view of how a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians should look.
In this paradigm, if Israel would do what the EU said it should – if it would agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital – then ties would move forward. If not, there would always be an obstacle holding them back.
So the ties were held back. This attitude elicited a fierce counterreaction from the various Netanyahu governments, especially when Avigdor Liberman served as foreign minister from 2009-2012 and 2013-2015.
But then, in 2020, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco signed the Abraham Accords, essentially saying that their ties with Israel would not be contingent on movement on the Palestinian track, and that they would not let the Palestinians veto their relationship with Israel. They would pursue strong ties with the Jewish state because it was in their interest to do so, and at the same time, they would continue to support the Palestinians.
So if the UAE was not allowing a new building project in Gilo or Gush Etzion to hamstring its galloping ties with Israel, then why should the EU?
Netanyahu’s exit from center stage and the entrance of Lapid – who made forging better ties with the EU a priority when he became foreign minister and later prime minister – provided a perfect opportunity for the union to restart the council meetings and reboot its relations with Israel.
Friction between Israel and the EU, which was a constant during the Netanyahu premiership, began to lessen when Borrell took over from Mogherini in December 2019 and when Gabi Ashkenazi became foreign minister in May 2020. When Lapid became foreign minister in 2021, he further put improving ties with the Europeans high on the agenda. Europe, in kind, toned down its rhetoric toward Israel.
Had Monday’s meeting been held in July, the overall atmosphere would probably have been more upbeat than it will likely be now. Coming now amid daily violence in the West Bank, there may be a tendency by some in the EU to revert to the old ways of lecturing and hectoring Israel, though Israel’s friends in the EU – and it has strong friends inside the European body – will obviously advise restraint, both because they want to put the relations on a better footing and because they don’t want to open Lapid up to criticism from the Right inside Israel for “pandering” to the Europeans.
Using foreign policy credentials ahead of Israeli elections
If the meeting goes well, the timing for Lapid – just a month before the election – could prove very fortuitous. In making high-profile trips abroad just before an election, Lapid is taking a page out of Netanyahu’s playbook.
The former prime minister made highlighting his foreign policy credentials just before Election Day a near art form.
For instance, in the weeks before the first election of the current cycle in March 2019, he traveled to Chad, Washington – where the US recognized Israeli control over the Golan Heights – and twice to Moscow. In the two weeks before the September 2019 voting, he made a point of going to London and Sochi, and before the March 2020 election, he again went to Washington for then-president Donald Trump’s unveiling of his “Plan of the Century.”
The logic behind those visits was that high-profile trips close to an election highlight the prime minister’s diplomatic expertise and can only raise his stature among the electorate. Lapid’s team is certainly thinking: if that was true for Netanyahu, it is true for us as well.