Israeli opposition leader's op-ed: Now is time to upgrade ties with Europe

This is exactly the right moment for a responsible and clear-sighted Israeli leadership to enter into an intensive dialogue with EU leaders.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Emmanuel Macron (photo credit: GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Emmanuel Macron
As Israelis we often suffer from a love-hate relationship with Europe. Our democratic political system has absorbed the best of European values and culture and we enjoy economic, scientific and strategic cooperation. But always etched in our memory is the dark history of the Holocaust and of antisemitic persecution, and we are frustrated when Europeans do not recognize our legitimate security interests, and when they side with the Palestinians against us.
But right now, a unique window of opportunity has opened for Israel to upgrade our relationship with Europe, on a strategic level that will enhance our security and economy for generations to come.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu risks missing this opportunity with Europe. Plans to upgrade EU-Israel relations have been frozen since Netanyahu came into office as prime minister in 2009, due to the ongoing erosion in Europe’s perception of his commitment to a two-state solution.
For sure, much of the blame for the ongoing deadlock between us and the Palestinians lies with Palestinian rejectionism, stubbornness, internal fragmentation and their continuing violence and incitement. We cannot peacefully resolve the conflict on our own. But Europe, and especially its leading powers, want to see at least that we are serious about reaching a solution to the conflict, whether gradually, or through an intensive effort.
The problem is, the ones paying the price for the stalemate in our relations with Europe are first and foremost the citizens of Israel. We need to enter into a far-reaching dialogue with Europe. The EU faces unprecedented challenges in an unstable and unpredictable international environment. Against that backdrop, we have a lot to offer, and a huge amount to gain.
With many European economies struggling with low growth and high unemployment, Israel’s dynamic and entrepreneurial economy makes for an attractive partner. With Europe facing unprecedented internal and external security threats, Israel can bring highly valued technological, security and intelligence knowhow. With Europe’s stability directly affected by the turbulent events in the Middle East, Israel is an important strategic ally. We even offer an invaluable alternative energy source – in the form of natural gas – for a continent keen to diversify its energy sources. Now more than ever, the chaos in our region, which is felt directly in Europe, underlines the values we share with the West.
This, therefore, is exactly the right moment for a responsible and clear-sighted Israeli leadership to enter into an intensive dialogue with EU leaders aimed at broadening our cooperation and deepening European political support for Israel.
The agenda for upgrading our relations with Europe will necessarily contain a long and significant list of issues, including blocking anti-Israel moves by the Palestinians at the UN, developing a joint strategy to dismantle the BDS movement and securing European support for our legitimate demands regarding the two-state solution. Among these demands are recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, the settlement blocks, and of course Israel’s security demands – at the core of which is ensuring a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. Now more than ever Europeans are likely to recognize the danger of a potential security vacuum from the East, and will want to upgrade cooperation with us in the battles against crime and terrorism. At the same time, we should be building a unified front against Sunni Jihadist forces and the radical activities of Iran in our region.
On the economic level, we should strive together to upgrade our relations by providing greater access for the Israeli economy to the European market and deepening our cooperation in the fields of health, education, science, research and energy, in ways that will improve the lives and opportunities of every Israeli.
We should be constructing a future in which Israel sits at the heart of security cooperation between Europe and moderate Arab states, confronting the shared threat of Islamic extremism. We should aspire to a future in which we enjoy a pivotal economic role as a state with exceptional levels of integration with the EU and ever-increasing economic cooperation with our neighbors – the moderate Arab states, especially as the Arab world is changing before our eyes, with a new generation of leaders prepared to cooperate with Israel.
To seize this opportunity, we need a diplomatic process. This does not mean we have to reach a permanent agreement to our conflict with the Palestinians tomorrow. European leaders are aware that the Palestinians are gripped by chaos, in the midst of a tough internal dispute, and of their responsibility for the situation. But we can show we are serious about a two-state solution by laying out a credible, long-term Israeli plan to move in stages towards a two-state goal, including an initiative to launch regional negotiations based on the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative, and confidence-building measures in the direction of separating from the Palestinians.
All our advantages – our geographic location; our developed and entrepreneurial economy; our high level of economic and cultural integration with Europe; our special economic and security relationship with the US; and our large Arab-speaking population – give Israel the potential to become a pivotal state between Europe and the Middle East. Add to this our flourishing economic relations with China and India and it becomes clear that Israel can enjoy the best of all worlds.
If we miss this window, future generations of Israelis will pay the price. Demographic trends in Europe are working against us. The younger generation in leading Western European states is less favorable towards Israel. The memory of the Holocaust and its lessons are less prominent with the passage of time and the Muslim population in Europe is growing.
Domestic pressure in European political systems is liable to push toward the isolation of Israel if we do not act now.
The proof of this, as mentioned, is that since 2009, for eight years now, Israel has suffered from a prolonged standstill in developing the wider strategic framework of its relations with Europe.
So here is the opportunity. The potential is great.
We must read the map and advance instead of arguing.
We must move with courage and determination, because Europe is indeed waiting for us.
The writer is leader of the opposition and an MK for the Zionist Union and Labor Party.