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Israel faces lowest point in Europe relations in decades

Despite Europe's status as Israel’s largest trading partner – or perhaps because of it – Israel is largely unconcerned about permanent damage from the diplomatic flap over Israel's move to expand settlements.

By Staff writer / December 4, 2012



Jerusalem

The unusually strong European rebuke of Israel’s plans to tighten its grip on land sought for a Palestinian state marks at least a 30-year low point in relations, say Israeli foreign policy scholars. While the nature of Europe’s complaint is not new, the tone reflects both heightened urgency about salvaging the two-state solution, and accumulated impatience with a government seen as diplomatically tone deaf.

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“What we now witness is not an eruption of emotions or a political eruption, it is a result of years of an evolution that has been taking place … in which Israel loses gradually but steadily the sympathy of public opinion in Europe,” says Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to both Germany and the European Union.

While he and others see a potential for a serious deterioration of relations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government appears undeterred by Europe’s response so far to plans to expand West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. Despite Europe being Israel’s largest trading partner – or perhaps because of it – Israel is largely unconcerned about the diplomatic flap inflicting any permanent damage.

“We have very strong relations with European countries and I’m sure we’ll overcome this in the near future,” says Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party. “I think we will have to deal with that [Europe’s] response, but we will continue to build in our capital in Jerusalem, and in settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria,” he says, using the biblical names for the West Bank.

Is Europe’s criticism registering?

Mr. Danon, who is also a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, says he was surprised by the diplomatic backlash from Europe because it showed a double standard after last week’s successful Palestinian bid to be recognized as a state at the United Nations.

“The message is very clear: if the Palestinians will take unilateral steps, Israel will do the same,” he says. “I haven’t seen any similar [European] response to recent Palestinian steps.”

But a fellow member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Nachmann Shai, says Israel’s retaliatory settlement moves are detrimental to its global standing and reflect an about-face, after Netanyahu so carefully worked to get international opinion on Israel’s side during the eight-day Gaza campaign that ended Nov. 21.

“We lost this credit overnight because we didn’t know how to react to the Palestinian request at the UN,” says Mr. Shai, who has represented Israel’s interests to the world in many different positions over the course of his career, including as spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. “The fact that we reacted by challenging the world community by doing something that we know for sure will make them angry … it’s like shooting ourselves in the leg, it’s against our interests.”

The Foreign Ministry could not be reached for comment. 

Hurt feelings

Some have characterized the dispute as the result of hurt feelings on both sides. European officials, who have shown more sympathy to Israel’s concerns than those of their own constituents – most recently sticking their necks out to support Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza – can’t help but feel that Israel has proven ungrateful.

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