Destroying 50 years of ties in 50 days

Over the past five years, the EU and Israel have brought their relationship from an all-time low to a situation where trade, cultural and even political ties are stronger than ever.

It is customary to give new governments and administrations a 100-day buffer zone before analyzing, or criticizing, their policies. But this assumes that those same governments will use the 100 days to take advice, learn the ropes and reach a fuller understanding of the issues at stake. After all, having been on the outside it is always easy to criticize and suggest new policies. Once the outsider becomes an insider and he/she takes time out to become acquainted with the realities and all those details which are often not known to the public, he may decide to move ahead in a more balanced, less emotive and less political, fashion while attempting to implement new policies. Our new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has decided that he doesn't need 100 days. He obviously didn't even require 100 hours before he came out with statements about Annapolis, the road map or our sensitive relations with our neighbor Egypt. Like a bull in a china shop and, we would assume, with the implicit knowledge of the prime minister, Lieberman has managed to anger just about everyone with his hasty statements. Our diplomats around the world, who have a difficult task to fill even at the best of times, are facing a barrage of criticism and are no longer sure what message they should be disseminating in the name of the state. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our relationship with the European Union, a relationship which began exactly 50 years ago, which has known ups and downs over the years, but which had recently experienced an upgrading and a mutual warmth which had rarely been achieved in the previous five decades. Over the past five years both the EU and the government had brought this relationship from an all-time low to a situation where the mutual trade, cultural and even political ties are stronger than ever before. Just last week, a poll sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Center for the study of Politics and Society at Ben-Gurion University showed that the average Israeli is very positive toward Europe, would like to see Israel as a future member of the EU (something which is unrealistic in practical terms and is unlikely to ever happen), and that almost 40 percent of Israelis were eligible for EU passports based on their parents' or grandparents' citizenship in one of these countries. And yet on the very next day, we are told that the EU has sent a strong message to their Israeli counterparts informing them that the continued warming of relations would not be taking place, given Israel's backtrack from its support of a two-state solution. Positions to this effect on the part of our new government reflect a major deviation from the stance taken by all governments during the past decade, as well as the international consensus position agreed by our strongest allies in both the US and Europe. THIS POTENTIAL worsening of relations with the EU is perhaps not surprising. Our new prime minister is as American as apple pie and has never demonstrated any serious interest in, or understanding of, Europe, despite the fact that one of his faithful team of advisers, Uzi Arad, was formerly the head of one of the major Israel-EU forums. Binyamin Netanyahu's comments last weekend to the effect that Europe should not try to dictate any form of peace settlement were uttered in a disdainful way which was totally unnecessary. For his part, Lieberman represents a strong Russian constituency in this country, a constituency which promotes Russian interests which are by no means the same as the rest of Europe. Russia is not part of the expanding EU, has made it clear that it does not see itself as a future member of the European club, and has gone to great efforts to make it even more difficult to cross into Russia from Europe than in the past. The meetings between Lieberman and his Russian counterparts shortly after taking up office must have sent the alarm bells ringing in Brussels, over and above his statements on the peace process. This is even more surprising given the fact that traditionally Lieberman has been very supportive of the relations between Israel and Europe, as reflected in his party's manifesto for the recent elections. In it, he suggested that he would use his links with Russia to act as a mediator or a bridge between Russia and the EU, but so far all he has succeeded in doing by partially opening one door with Russia is to even more partially close another door with the EU. And if you were to ask the average Israeli, the same Israeli who answered the survey concerning attitudes toward Europe, who we trust in the longer term, it is clear that Western Europe takes precedence way above that of Russia, a country whose foreign policy continues to support states and leaders who display great animosity towards Israel. Next week, Israel and the EU will be discussing 50 years of formal relations in a conference to be held at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem, at which Lieberman was expected to take part along with his European counterparts, but will not now attend. It will cover a wide range of topics, from the overtly political to the cultural and to the economic and trade relations between the two. Lieberman could have used this as an opportunity to clarify his, and the new administration's formal, position toward the EU. While the EU may not be as blindly supportive as our friends in the US (and this too appears to be changing in a way which even Netanyahu and his American allies may find difficult to deal with), Europe remains our ally in democracy and will continue to defend our right to exist and to defense in a hostile regional environment. Much to their parents' and grandparents' dissatisfaction, young Israelis are returning to Europe in droves and are demonstrating their preferences for European lifestyles and culture just two short generations after the Holocaust. Many of them are taking up their rights to European passports, even through the problematic adoption of Polish and German citizenship. The young adult generation of this country sees Europe through very different eyes to those of its government and its new leaders. This is becoming far more deep rooted than any of us could ever have expected just 20 years ago, and it would ill behoove our new government to drive a wedge into this important relationship. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.