Israel must not give up on Europe

In addition to strategic and commercial interests, Israel and Europe share similar values.

DON’T FORGET Europe. (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Benny Gantz attempts to form a government, Europeans are breathing a sigh of relief that the contentious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign may soon be over. Yet even if Gantz succeeds where Netanyahu failed, his positions on the Palestinians, Iran and the broader region largely resemble those of his predecessor. What Europeans welcome are Gantz’s inoffensive demeanor and prospects to re-energize bilateral relationships compromised by the contentious Netanyahu.
Whatever comes of the political impasse, European countries, the incoming EU Commission and the next Israeli government should realize their mutual security, economic and political interests while investing more in bilateral ties. The continent is not, as some allege, a collection of feckless and sanctimonious states determined to impede Israel’s interests at every turn. Nor is Israel a jingoistic imperial power fundamentally incompatible with the liberal order supported by Europe.
The truth is that Israel stands to gain much from Europe, and vice versa. Regarding Iran, there is substantive overlap on foiling Tehran’s proxies and stopping its state-sanctioned terrorist activities. Vibrant economic cooperation – fueled in large part by Israel’s hi-tech sector – stands to deepen. Though many Israelis consider the purportedly decadent and self-righteous Europe a lost cause, that ideological judgment belies the many interests both sides share.
To Netanyahu’s credit, he has grown ties with Eastern European nations. No doubt shared concerns over terrorism and migration have drawn them closer to Israel. Perhaps an even greater pull comes from the strong ethno-nationalist identities in both places that compel Eastern Europe to view Israel as a natural partner. Israel’s notable success in improving relations with Poland (ongoing Holocaust-related disputes notwithstanding) and other countries like the Czech Republic deserves recognition. At the same time, however, the pervasive antisemitism in Eastern Europe makes these relationships problematic. The next Israeli government must do more to hold its Eastern European partners to account on the issue while deepening ties.
Yet Israel’s standing with the rest of the continent is worsening, and blame lies with both sides. It’s true that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians affront the sensibilities of many Europeans. Whereas Israeli nationalism (embodied particularly well by the Nation-State Law) counts admirers in Eastern Europe, it is off-putting elsewhere. But it’s also true that segments of European society seek to delegitimize Israel, whether through BDS or other channels. Though naysayers may view engagement with Europe as hopeless, Israel has much to gain from the relationship.
DESPITE THE TALK of Europe’s decline, the continent retains considerable hard power. Take its three most powerful states: Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Together, these advanced democracies represent about 10% of the global GDP and exert great political influence abroad. France and the United Kingdom have permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council while both maintaining significant overseas military capabilities. Germany, for all its apprehension over military force, recently sold Israel $2 billion in submarines. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – almost all of whose member states are in Europe – values strategic cooperation with Jerusalem. Europe has shown a commitment to Israel’s security through arms sales and intelligence sharing. Israel would do well to recall the more powerful friends it has, the better off it is.
European countries are also wealthy and can help Israel economically. Israel-EU trade totaled €36b. in 2017, making the bloc Israel’s largest trading partner. Investment from Europe is also robust and notably has a growing foothold in Israel’s venture-capital sector. Another boon to Israel’s economy is European tourism – thanks to the Open Skies pact, visitors from the EU are flocking to Israel in unprecedented numbers. And not to be overlooked are the thousands of Israelis who hold European passports and the thousands more who reside in Europe.
In addition to strategic and commercial interests, Israel and Europe share similar values. What they have in common are liberal democratic societies featuring rule of law, civil liberties and minority rights. Contrast that with the transactional foundations of Israel’s ties with authoritarian states elsewhere, principally in Africa and Asia. Liberal democracies are far more reliable patrons.
All this is not to deny the challenges facing Israeli-European relations. Chief among them stands the resurgence of antisemitism that has blighted the continent in recent years. The Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party in Britain is a case in point. Another challenge comes in the form of Europe’s commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, which Jerusalem deems antithetical to its security, as well as criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. And worries abound over how the continent’s growing Muslim population may impact future relations with Israel.
These concerns, albeit legitimate, far from render the relationship unworkable. Antisemitism is a scourge that must be eradicated, but the governments of France, Germany and the United Kingdom do much to combat anti-Jewish prejudice. European countries also overwhelmingly support Israel as it combats terrorism. BDS and other delegitimization efforts, while worrisome, remain confined to the margins of society. This is not the look of a place intractably hostile to Israel.
Though it behooves Israel to solicit new partners, they should not come at the expense of European ones. For instance, Israel just concluded a free trade agreement with South Korea and is in talks with Japan to do the same. Close relations with these two dynamic East Asian economies are certainly desirable. But Israel should not delude itself into thinking they can offset neighboring Europe.
Whoever emerges as the next prime minister should devote requisite attention and resources to the continent. The animus Europeans harbor toward Israel will largely dissipate when Netanyahu leaves office, giving his successor a fresh start. His government could take a step toward supporting such a change of course by fixing the Foreign Ministry, which finds itself in dire financial straits under Netanyahu. A re-supplied and re-invigorated diplomatic corps will drive Israel’s ties with Europe for the better.
Proximity, strategic interests, and shared values and history hold the Israel-Europe relationship together. The continent has been a fixture of Israel’s foreign policy since its founding, and it must continue to be in the years to come.
The author is program assistant for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his own.