Israel-EU relations, which have had their fair share of ups and downs over the last few decades (truth be told, more downs than ups), appear now to be on an upward swing following a lengthy meeting in Brussels on Tuesday between Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
So much of an upswing that the Foreign Ministry, following the meeting that lasted more than two-and-a-half hours, issued a statement saying a “new page” had been turned in Israel’s ties with the EU and that an Israel-EU summit meeting will be held this year, “probably in Jerusalem.”
While Borrell’s statement after the meeting made no mention either of a “new page” or that the next Israel-EU Association Council meeting – the “summit” in The Foreign Ministry’s parlance – would be held in Jerusalem, it did adopt a significantly different tone from the one Borrell took in mid-March.
Then, in an article he penned as Israel was in the midst of a vicious uptick in terror, Borrell appeared to liken Israeli terror victims to Palestinians killed in IDF responses to that terror. He also equated Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist and the Netanyahu government’s “coalition agreement [which] denies the Palestinians’ right to their own state.”
Those comparisons infuriated Jerusalem and prompted an angry phone call from Cohen. Israeli officials were quoted afterward saying that the government made clear to Borrell that he was not welcome to visit (no such visit, however, was in the works at the time).
The improvements between the EU and Israel have experienced constant change
After years of a steady improvement in the diplomatic ties between Israel and the EU that began when Borrell took over from Frederica Mogherini in 2019 and Gabi Ashkenazi became foreign minister in 2020 – and which continued under Yair Lapid’s tenure as foreign minister – it suddenly appeared that the relationship with the new government was headed back to the tense days that often characterized the relationship during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous term in office.
Those years were marked by the EU sanctimoniously preaching to Israel and threatening various steps in response to the government’s settlement policies, and by Israeli officials frequently lashing back and accusing the EU of a one-sided and hypocritical approach to the conflict.
Matters deteriorated to the point where, following an EU decision in 2015 to label as “settlement products” goods made in Judea, Samaria, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Netanyahu suspended Israel’s diplomatic dialogue with Brussels and called for a reassessment of ties.
Although the Foreign Ministry’s statement after Tuesday’s meeting between Cohen and Borrell was more positive than the EU’s, it is clear from both communiques that the sides are trying to improve relations and move on.
As Borrell said in his statement, “Cooperation between the EU and Israel is very strong, and the EU is keen on deepening this relationship further, hoping for another meeting of the Association Council this year. Holding the Association Council as the highest institutional level of bilateral dialogue is important not just to continue strengthening [the] EU-Israel relationship but also because of the importance of cooperation to face global challenges, among them Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, or Iran’s regional role.”
Borrell condemned the recent rocket and terrorist attacks against Israelis but also “recalled that any response must be proportionate and in line with international law.” He further expressed “concern about the situation” in the territories.
While Cohen could surely have done without the latter part of Borrell’s statement, it was a far cry from the top EU diplomat’s piece in March.
Neither Israel – for whom the EU is its largest export market – nor the EU, which can only play a regional diplomatic role if it enjoys a modicum of trust among Israeli government officials, benefits from tensions between them.
Both sides, after all, need each other to serve interests well beyond the Palestinian issue: Israel needs the EU’s assistance in placing pressure on Iran and the EU needs Israeli natural gas to help reduce its dependence on Russia.
On Tuesday the two sides began mending fences badly breached in March. That rupture did no one any good. Efforts to repair it are to be applauded.