Analysis: Israel joining the EU? Words, words, words

For security, diplomatic and emotional reasons, this piquant idea is a nonstarter.

eu flag 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
eu flag 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stood in the Knesset Wednesday and reiterated what he has said repeatedly during his visit here about his dream for Israel’s joining the EU, everyone in the plenum clapped.
They clapped even though they know that this will probably never happen, not only because the EU is not all that interested in our membership, but also because we don’t necessarily want to join that club.
Yet Berlusconi offers and we clap. We clap even though there is no blueprint for implementation, but simply because of what the offer represents; the symbolism of the gesture.
Israel is not, to put it mildly, Europe’s flavor of the month. It is demonized by some (think Swedish press), accused of war crimes by others (think British legal system), and vilified by still others (think Irish politicians).
And yet despite it all, here comes the leader of Italy – not a small, insignificant member of the EU – and says from every podium in Israel that “you are like us, we want you.”
For a nation feeling increasingly isolated, those words are refreshing and duly applauded.
But don’t be confused by the applause. Israel is in no great hurry to join the EU. In fact, Israel has never applied to join the EU, an obvious prerequisite for membership.
It’s not because no one has ever given this idea any thought. Back in 2002, when Binyamin Netanyahu was finance minister, he visited Berlusconi and asked him to consider including us in the club.
The idea sparked the imagination of some in Jerusalem at the time, and papers were prepared on the issue by the Foreign Ministry. The bottom line was that membership at this time would not be in Israel’s best interest because it would be based on the EU’s four freedoms of movement: of people, merchandise, money and services.
Israel, considering its rather tricky security considerations, is not about to agree to the free movement of all Europeans in and out of Israel. Not now, not yet.
Those papers, however, were rather technical. But there are other issues, some of them more poetic.
For instance, after 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish people finally won their hard-fought for independence in 1948, gaining a flag, an anthem, and – finally – political sovereignty.
Considering that, Israel will not be so willing – at least not in its relative youth – to forfeit any part of that independence to another body, to place its flag under that of another organization. And, that – to a certain extent – is what EU membership would entail.
Membership in the EU would mean that Israel’s foreign policy would have to align itself with the EU’s, as would its industrial, economic and agricultural policies. If the EU said Israeli farmers could only grow a certain type of red pepper, it would only be able to grow a certain type of red pepper.
Or, as Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos put it at the Herzliya Conference on Tuesday, “Can anyone imagine [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman working under High Representative [Catherine] Ashton?” Ashton is the EU’s new foreign affairs chief.
By the same token, it is extremely difficult to imagine that the Europeans would take us into the club as long as the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arabs rages on. One only has to look at the trouble Israel has had trying to get a relatively mild political upgrade in its relations with EU, a process that was grounded following Operation Cast Lead, to imagine what it would be like to actually apply for full-scale membership.
It is almost inconceivable to think that the EU would grant Israel membership as long as there was not a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including in the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem. And it is equally inconceivable to think Israel would make those withdrawals just to join this club.
So Berlusconi’s words are just that – words. They are nice words, they indicate how strongly he feels about us, but the chances of Israel joining the EU at this point are about as good as the chances of Israel becoming, well, America’s 51st state.