Israel-EU annual meeting after decade hiatus - opinion

Israel and the European Union held an Association Council meeting for the first time in a decade. How did Israel change in that time, and how did it affect the EU-Israel relationship?

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks in a video call from Israel with representatives of the European Union, on Monday. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks in a video call from Israel with representatives of the European Union, on Monday.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Israel and the European Union held an Association Council meeting On Monday, a ministerial-level dialogue that is supposed to occur once a year but has been on hold for nearly a decade. 

As expected, there was no new agreement or major initiative to emerge from the session, nor was there any upgrading of ties. There was some grumbling from the Europeans both before and even during the meeting that Prime Minister Yair Lapid participated by video link rather than show up in person. 

The big news is not what came out of the meeting but rather what led to it.

The 2013 meeting was abruptly canceled by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angry at a new EU restatement of its longstanding principle that agreements with Israel only applied to the pre-1967 borders. 

The 2014 meeting was canceled by the Europeans, under pressure from certain member states’ governments to take symbolic action against Israel following the 51-day conflict in Gaza that summer. And since then, no real effort was made to reconvene the Association Council. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, before he became prime minister, in the Knesset. (credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS)European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, before he became prime minister, in the Knesset. (credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS)

The two cancellations turned into a mutual boycott, which neither side really wanted or was able to justify.

The Europeans, after all, had held multiple Association Council meetings with other Middle Eastern countries whose militaries and security forces were involved in actions at least as problematic as Israel’s, including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. And diplomatic relations between Israel and the EU as a whole and its member states individually were actually much better in this period than they had been in decades.

In 2021, Lapid, then foreign minister and now both foreign minister and prime minister, made it a personal goal to see the Association Council reconvene. He was aided in this by a cross-party initiative in the European Parliament pushed by Spanish MEP Antonio López-Istúriz White. The result of both efforts was the meeting in Brussels.

The topics under discussion show just how much has changed in the Europe-Israel relationship in the last 10 years. These include counter-terrorism, defense technology, energy and the war in Ukraine

What has changed between 2013 and today?

The relationship has changed because the world has changed. Notably, Israel has undertaken two methodical but dramatic diplomatic shifts.

The first is Israel’s place in the region. Israel is no longer the isolated and boycotted outpost in the Middle East that it was for most of its history. It has peace treaties with six Arab states now, four of which were signed since the last Association Council meeting. There are direct flights from Tel Aviv to major cities in the region and a burgeoning trade between Israel and Gulf monarchies, including those without official relations. 

It is a player in the regional alliance systems of both the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean, just as it has also become a net energy exporter due to the discovery of large gas deposits of its shoreline. None of this was the case at the last council meeting in 2012.

The second Israeli diplomatic shift is in Europe itself. Israel has cultivated deep ties with a number of new member states in the EU from Central and Eastern Europe, whose presence in Brussels bridges cultural ideological gaps that were once much wider. 

Many of the diplomats from Central Europe in particular share with their Israeli counterparts memories – sometimes selective and self-serving and sometimes entirely justified – of abandonment by hypocritical and pious elites in the West. It has also cultivated deep military ties with Greece and Cyprus and others on the union’s periphery with a stake in regional affairs that goes beyond principled pronouncements designed to placate domestic constituencies. 

This new diplomatic approach yielded results. “The two countries that pushed hardest for this meeting to take place were Greece and the Czech Republic,” Pascaline Wagemans, director of the Forum for Strategic Dialogue told me last week. 

The one thing that has not changed is that an eruption of Israeli-Palestinian violence, particularly violence centered on the emotive issue of Jerusalem, can stall and even, depending on its duration and its severity, partially reverse these two enormous shifts. 

The comments of Josep Borrell, the EU high commissioner for foreign and security affairs, at the outset of the meeting made clear both how important the issue is to the Europeans and how different their view of some of the key aspects of it are from even the most moderate Israeli leaders.

Beyond the diplomatic shifts, however, is an even larger change that has happened in European-Israeli relations. The tiny Israel defined by its conflict with the Arabs that Europeans once knew is no more. When the first Cooperation Agreement was signed in 1975, Israel, with its three million people, was smaller than all the European member states save Luxembourg.

Sometime in the next two years, the Israeli population will cross the 10 million mark, making it significantly larger than Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Austria (among others), and roughly equal in population to Greece, Portugal and Sweden.

It is today a regional trading power, an energy exporter and a global technological leader. This necessarily changes the European approach to Israel in times of relative calm in the region, but will also necessitate a different approach even in times of trouble.

The writer is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a research fellow at the Institute for Liberty and Responsibility at Reichman University. Follow him on Twitter at @ShMMor.