Can Israel’s friends save it from the EU’s wrath?

Israel probably won’t face economic sanctions from Europe if it moves forward with sovereignty in the West Bank, but there are other ways to make Jerusalem pay.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen oversee the signing of agreements between the two countries in Jerusalem last year (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen oversee the signing of agreements between the two countries in Jerusalem last year
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
It seems like every few days there’s news of another European leader commenting on the possibility that Israel will apply its laws to parts of the West Bank. Unsurprisingly, they’re almost always against it.
But within this déjà-vu-inducing news cycle, there’s one specific recurring event: European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell releases a statement calling for Israel to adhere to international law, sometimes with the more threatening addition that the EU will take action in response to unilateral moves.
Then, we hear about the behind-the-scenes debate. Hungary, Czech Republic and Austria, but sometimes others, have misgivings, and each EU member state has veto power over foreign policy. Most are fine with the statements. Certain countries, usually Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland and Sweden, lead the pack, but often others as well, like France of late, even push for harsher, more specific threats, like sanctions of some form.
Instead of working out something everyone can agree on, Borrell releases the statement as his own. Many of the countries that are more aggressive on the Israel front then release their own statements or have their UN ambassadors make comments similar to Borrell’s in the Security Council.
In all the times this has happened in recent months, the largest number of countries to say no to a Borrell statement was eight out of 27, and it was because of the timing – he warned the new government off of annexation before the government was officially sworn in. The core team breaking from the rest of the EU pack is three countries deep.
This raises the question: Is the small group defending Israel in the EU enough to save it from the wrath of the rest, if Israel moves forward with sovereignty in the West Bank?
After hours of discussions in recent months with European diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity so they could say less-than-diplomatic things, the conclusion seems to be yes... and no.
THE MAJOR objectors to Borrell’s statements point to the timing.
Hungary’s current government views itself as aligned with US President Donald Trump in many ways, and has enthusiastically backed the American peace plan, including annexation, and in that way is unique even among the more pro-American EU member states.
Austria and the Czech Republic are both deeply pro-Israel with almost no political opposition to their governments’ policies toward the Jewish state. In the Czech Republic, this has gone back decades, and in Austria, it’s a more recent development. Still, both countries’ foreign ministers spoke out against annexation recently, though in the Czech case, there was significant pushback from the prime minister and president.
All three of the major Israel supporters opposed the Borrell statements based on the argument that they “don’t criticize something that didn’t happen,” as one diplomat said. Another said “we don’t know the timeline.” Yet another pointed out that there is no map yet for where Israel wants sovereignty, and that the US seems to be cooling on the idea, anyway.
But they also tend to oppose the tenor of the statements, which one diplomat called “politics by proclamation.” They called for a more constructive approach.
“If you want to accomplish something, sit down and talk,” the source suggested.
Another colorfully described the EU as “shadowboxing,” as in, it is in denial about not really being a player in this matter.
Even if Israel moves forward with sovereignty, at least one, if not all, of the friendlier countries is likely to veto economic sanctions. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó promised to stand up for Israel in the EU, UN and International Criminal Court in his first conversation with new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
It would not be a comfortable position for Israel to be in, if the vast majority of Israel’s biggest trading partner were to oppose trade, but one country’s objection is enough to salvage the situation. Individual countries cannot ban trade. Trade policy is set by the EU as a whole and not by individual or subgroups of member states.
However, next year the EU will launch Horizon Europe, a €100 billion scientific research initiative, on which Israeli science and innovation are very dependent. One country can veto Israel’s participation in the program. Or individual countries can ban research cooperation with Israel.
There has also been some talk of withdrawal from the 2013 Open Skies Agreement, which allows for direct flights between Israel and any airport in the EU.
ANY DISCUSSION of EU policy toward Israel needs, to some extent, to be taken more broadly in the context of EU politics.
The Czech Republic and Hungary are half of the tight-knit Visegrad Group of countries, along with Poland and Slovakia, which works to represent shared Central European interests within the framework of the EU.
It’s important to point out that they are not “Euroskeptic”; the EU is important to all of these countries’ economies, and there are no serious discussions of a departure, nor is the idea popular among their citizens. However, they work together to push back against the dominance of some of their larger neighbors to their west and make sure that their views are heard. They’re not willing to be dismissed as post-communist and therefore somehow less developed or democratic, with less of a say than others.
They’re “Euro-realist” and “critical of Brussel’s excesses,” one diplomat said. Another said they seek to “balance not wanting to be Mr. No with having our own say.”
Foreign policy generally and Israel specifically are just one issue on which these countries tend to buck the European trend.
Austria is not a Visegrad country, but in the same interview in which Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he would oppose Israel unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank, he said Vienna wants a greater role in shaping EU policy, and that the government under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is being more assertive in making its positions known.
And like the Visegrad states, they’re not happy with the Franco-German EU budget proposal that spends a lot on bailing out the mostly Southern European countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With coronavirus, plus the EU budget debate roiling in Brussels, Israel is not anyone’s top priority right now. Even the US, which proposed the peace plan, has made that amply clear to Israel, and in Europe, it’s even more so.
A busy agenda with little time to examine new issues makes for superficial, knee-jerk responses, and when it comes to Israel, countries repeat their dogma and revert to their usual positions.
More than one diplomatic source lamented that some of the comments made in EU foreign ministers’ meetings sound woefully out of touch and “ignoring realities.” For example, many seem to be unaware of the significance of Blue and White being a major coalition partner and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Ashkenazi being much less enthusiastic about annexation than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is. This all goes back to the issue of condemning and threatening Israel before anything has actually happened yet.
Diplomats also pointed to the political needs and positions of officials in Brussels and around the EU, with one going so far as to dismiss Borrell as a socialist, and another shrugging and saying that “leftists love Palestinians” and citing a growing Muslim population in Western Europe.
One source cited a philosophic reason for some countries favoring Israels and others singling Israel out for opprobrium, which is their views on nationality. He pointed to “post-nationalism” and “dogmatic multiculturalism” as increasingly popular views in the EU and said that countries with weaker national cohesion tend to be less supportive of Israel – an explanation that could work for Belgium or Spain, but makes somewhat less sense for much of Scandinavia.
In any case, his idea was that some Europeans don’t understand the point of Israel being a nation-state and view the whole concept as backward and needing to be kept at bay.
MOVING FORWARD, if Israel wants to strengthen its position in the EU and not just be dependent on one, two or three countries, one European diplomat recommended that Israel work harder to foster closer ties with other pro-American EU member states.
The eastern Baltic states are particularly vulnerable to Russian intervention and have been victims of repeated cyberattacks, and thus tend to be more aligned with the US, and could use Israel’s cybersecurity expertises.
Poland is one of the most pro-American and pro-Trump countries in Europe. A Pew poll from earlier this year showed that Israel was the country in which Trump had the highest approval rate for his foreign policy, with Poland in second place.
A diplomat suggested Israel work to repair the ties between Israel and Poland that have been frayed since Warsaw outlawed blaming the Polish people for any part of the Holocaust. The subsequent war of words between officials included former foreign minister Israel Katz, who on his first day on the job quoted prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s claim that Poles get antisemitism in their mothers’ milk. A positive conversation between Ashkenazi and his Polish counterpart this week seems to be a step toward bringing ties back to what they were.
Regardless of whether those ideas pan out, Israel has some reliable friends in the EU that can block major sanctions. But it’s worth keeping in mind that they’re in the minority and can’t promise Israel and Europe’s material ties will remain unscathed.