Will the EU choose to work with or boycott Netanyahu's government? - opinion

Engaging with Netanyahu's right-wing government is the only way to effect meaningful change

European Union flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)
European Union flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)

The outcome of Israel’s fifth election in under four years has many in the European Union (EU) concerned. Referred to as the victory of Israel’s extreme Right, Benjamin Netanyahu was tapped by President Isaac Herzog to form the next government, with the president expressing concern over its right-wing orientation. Anticipated to include Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties along with the right-wing Religious Zionist Party, Netanyahu will have a solid 64 seats in the 120-seat legislature, the strongest coalition, percentage-wise and ideologically, which Israel has seen in years.

Claims that the coalition will not last or that it is only a temporary step in Netanyahu’s quest to form a more moderate government are wishful thinking. And while concerns over what this government might be capable of are well-founded, many concerns are overplayed. It is instead time to think about potential opportunities for EU foreign policy from much-needed engagement with the new government.

Why is the EU concerned over Israel's new government?

The EU is rightfully concerned over a number of primary issues. Despite claims to the contrary, the annexation of the West Bank is not a realistic prospect. No matter how right-wing his government, Netanyahu is above all an international statesman who understands the full implications of such a move in his relationship with the current United States administration and Abraham Accords nations.

While progress will undoubtedly be made to lay the groundwork and appease a right-wing electorate, the EU or UN overreacting to such largely symbolic steps would be counterproductive. Such was the case with the UN vote about a month ago, requesting an opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal status of Israel’s “prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.”

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU leaves after holding coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday.  (credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90) BENJAMIN NETANYAHU leaves after holding coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Biden, well experienced with handling Netanyahu government crises from his time in the Obama administration, has understood the nature of what shape the US-Israel relationship should take, calling Netanyahu to congratulate him on his return to office, underscoring his unwavering support for Israeli security but in order to make a statement, a week late.

An example where laying the groundwork might be most evident is the Temple Mount, a bone of contention where even a simple change in the status quo can inflame tensions across the entire West Bank. Right-wing coalition partner Itamar Ben-Gvir has been a long-time advocate of increased Jewish rights on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

WITH THE High Court of Justice in the past affirming the right of Jews to pray, setting as the only caveat the police’s ability to limit this due to public security concerns, the status quo can be expected to almost certainly change with Ben-Gvir as minister of national security. Again, the EU should be wary of making such a change into something it is not, such as a denial of Palestinian rights to access the Mount. Overreacting will only play into the right-wing’s hands, which already portrays the EU as an actor antithetical to Israel’s national interest.

Despite challenges posed by the Right, Israel’s Arab population will be represented by 10 legislators in the Knesset. Indeed, the threat posed by the right-wing increased the percentage of Arab voters by around 8.5% in the recent election. European decision-makers would do well to see them, as well as other more moderate members of the opposition as strategic partners, while not ostracizing the government itself.

Danish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Asger Christensen’s approach was very instructive in this regard, saying, “It is Israel’s decision [to shift to the far-right]. We will cooperate with that decision.” Even if Israel has a far-right government, he added, “We want to expand cooperation with Israel in Europe”.

Such a policy of continued, potentially critical, engagement, would be very much in line with EU policies towards previous governments, such as the most recent Bennett-Lapid coalition. This was treated as a perfectly legitimate government, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen even paying Bennett a visit to Jerusalem in June of this year.

This was despite the Ra’am party’s key position in the coalition. Ra’am, founded by convicted terrorist Sheikh Abdullah Darwish, is affiliated with Israel’s Islamic Movement and is openly homophobic.

A policy of engagement would also be very much in line with the EU’s own policy towards right-wing governments in the EU, a pragmatic approach considering how the far-right has become increasingly stronger, as was seen from the recent Italian and Swedish elections.

Ignoring or worse, boycotting, Israel’s new government, no matter how right-wing or extreme, is precisely the move many in the incoming government anticipate in order to both justify their anti-European narrative and policies which emphasize why Jewish interests must be placed above all else.

The writer is the president and co-founder of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is also the CEO of London-based F&R Strategy Group, a geopolitical consultancy at the intersection of politics and business.