Borrell: Israeli democracy must continue, key to EU partnership

“We are a close observer because Israel is a key partner, and our shared values are based on a democratic and open society and the rule of law,” Borrell said.

 European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell speaks on the tensions between the neighbouring Western Balkan nations in Brussels, Belgium, August 18, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/Johanna Geron)
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell speaks on the tensions between the neighbouring Western Balkan nations in Brussels, Belgium, August 18, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Johanna Geron)

The European Union won’t hesitate to express its concern about Israel’s judicial overhaul program, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament on Tuesday.

“We are a close observer because Israel is a key partner, and our shared values are based on a democratic and open society and the rule of law,” Borrell said.

“We expect this to continue,” he added as he opened a debate on Israeli democracy, which also included concerns with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had called Borrell and expressed his opposition to the debate.

Not very happy about this debate

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2023 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2023 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Cohen “was not very happy about this debate. He was concerned, asking why the European Parliament is interfering in the internal affairs of Israel – once again, blaming me,” Borrell told the Parliament.

He told Cohen, “I am sorry, I am coming to the [European] Parliament and if the [European] Parliament calls me to discuss... something, I have to come,” he added.

“With full respect to the internal political dynamics with Israel, this chamber is fully empowered to discuss... these dynamics and to understand what happens there with respect to our perception of values and interests in the region – nothing is strange with that.

“This cannot be seen as an interference but a way of showing our interest and our appreciation for Israeli democracy,” Borrell said.

Swedish MEP Evan Incir of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats said Israeli democracy was “in danger” and that the EU needed to act.

True friends can discuss uncomfortable issues 

Swedish MEP David Lega of the European People’s Party said he was known as a friend of Israel and yet he was concerned.

“True friends are honest with each other and can also discuss uncomfortable issues,” Lega said.

The draft legislation is worrisome, and many Israelis have said so as well, he said.

“Israel is the only liberal democrat in the Middle East and the only country where people can protest... So I do hope the government of Israel will listen to the concerns of their transatlantic friends,” Lega said.

French MEP Bernard Guetta of the Renew Europe Group said that in an ironic way, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan, which Guetta believed would weaken Israeli democracy, would therefore make the country more like its non-democratic neighbors.

French MEP Bernard Guetta at the European Parliament building in Brussels on September 24, 2019. (credit: WIKIMEDIA)French MEP Bernard Guetta at the European Parliament building in Brussels on September 24, 2019. (credit: WIKIMEDIA)

He called for economic sanctions against Israel, and others called on the EU to cut ties with the Jewish state.

Borrell later clarified that none of these steps was under consideration.

Some members of Parliament said it was premature to weigh in while the reform was in process and the Israeli public was so active in speaking out. It would be better, those parliamentarians said, to wait until the reform was in place and only then to judge the process.

They noted that many of those voices who were upset about the judicial reform were also those who were quick to attack Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Other MEPs expressed their concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the policies of Netanyahu’s government, noting that the judicial reform would make it easier for Israel to annex portions of the West Bank.