Israel-Europe ties improving, warming up to Abraham Accords - exclusive

The Foreign Ministry has been working to help those European diplomats understand the shift in the paradigm of the Middle East.

A European Union flag flies outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, December 19, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)
A European Union flag flies outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, December 19, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)
The Foreign Ministry sees positive trends in Israel-Europe relations and has even won over some Abraham Accords skeptics.
“For years, European states connected developing relations with Israel to the conflict with the Palestinians,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said Monday in a video conference with Israeli ambassadors in Europe. “The ministry’s goal has been to reduce the tension and the connection and continue advancing bilateral dialogue while dealing with the Palestinian issue.”
Improving ties with Europe has been Ashkenazi’s priority since entering office in May, and on that front, he has sought “direct, positive and constructive dialogue,” as opposed to “megaphone diplomacy,” he said.
Foreign Ministry deputy director-general for Europe Anna Azari said when she prepared her working program for 2020 a year ago and looked at the challenges and goals ahead, blowback from the possibility that Israel might extend its sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria was at the top of the agenda.
“There were catastrophic forecasts of tensions across the board,” Azari said.
But once “annexation” was suspended in favor of the Abraham Accords signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, “we had two to three months of the reverse, even in an exaggerated way, that soon we will solve all our problems with Europe,” she said.
Now that the dust has settled, the atmosphere for dialogue with European countries is still significantly improved from where it was a year ago, Azari said.
At the same time, “in many but not all EU states, there was a cold or even upset response to the Abraham Accords,” she said.
Many of those states behave as though “the Palestinians come before anything else,” and as such, “their working assumption was that peace processes with other countries, which they mostly call normalization, means we will abandon the Palestinians,” Azari said.
The Foreign Ministry has been working to help European diplomats understand the shift in the Middle East paradigm, she said, adding: “We had to explain that nothing negative has happened; the opposite is true,” and in the ensuing months, many of the attitudes toward the accords have changed for the better.
Azari credited Ashkenazi’s use of the slogan “From annexation to normalization” in meetings with European foreign ministers, and repeatedly saying that Israel’s door is open to the Palestinians, as instrumental in warming many European states’ attitudes toward the Abraham Accords.
“The picture is better than what we would expect,” she said. “For many, dialogue with the Palestinians is still the most important thing. But they’re realizing that the reason there is no dialogue is the Palestinians themselves. We’re in a better place than we were a year ago in that respect.”
During 2020, 13 foreign ministers and two prime ministers from Europe visited Israel, and Ashkenazi took part in a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin this summer, something that no Israeli foreign minister had been invited to do before.
In addition, seven countries – Germany, Austria, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Czech Republic – banned Hezbollah in its entirety, as opposed to EU policy, which allows a “political arm” of the Lebanese terrorist group to operate on the continent.
“The reality is contrary to Europe’s image among Israelis that they’re all against us,” Azari said.
The Foreign Ministry divides EU member states into three categories – supportive, medium and challenging – and says the first two are larger than the third, although it would not divulge who is in which group, she said.
Israel has worked to improve relations with supportive subgroups within the EU, Azari said, such as the Visegrad Group – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland – the Baltic states and the “Energy Triangle” of Greece, Cyprus and Israel, which helped positively influence broader EU policy toward Israel last year.
Azari said she has seen some positive trends in the “challenging” category, especially when it comes to willingness to support a meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council, the body meant to strengthen bilateral ties between the two. It has not convened since 2013, with some EU states withholding authorization in protest against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell has been strongly in favor of reinstating the council since Israel suspended annexation plans.
The Foreign Ministry is also in dialogue with the EU and individual member states to stop illegal construction in Area C of the West Bank and to coordinate any further building with Israel, but the matter has yet to be resolved.