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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.

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“As much as we try to put a sophisticated analytical veneer on all this ... I don’t think you can completely dismiss the human reaction,” says Mark Heller, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “It may not have been intended as slap in the face, but it looks like a slap in the face.”

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On the Israeli side, meanwhile, years of harsh statements from Europe and the United Nations have left many calloused.

“There are undercurrents in the psyche, deeply held feelings that, ultimately, nobody likes us anyway, no matter what we do, and we’re really on our own,” says Dr. Heller. “Nobody else cares what we think, so why should we care what they think?”

Lowest point in decades

Sharon Pardo, director of the Center for the Study of European Politics and Society at Ben Gurion University, calls the current flap “one of the lowest points in the history of more than 50 years of EU-Israeli relations.” The only other incident he sees as comparable is the 1980 Venice Declaration, which recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization and affirmed the Palestinian right to self-government.

He says there were clear signals of growing European frustration leading up to this week’s rebuke.

When Britain, France, and Germany said after a UN Security Council meeting a year ago that they were “dismayed” by Israeli settlement building, Israel’s Foreign Ministry dismissed their “inappropriate bickering” with Israel and warned that they were “bound to lose their credibility and make themselves irrelevant” – suggesting that they direct their energies instead to bigger problems, like Syria.

Blacklists, ban under consideration

More recently, the EU has reportedly been mulling a plan to blacklist violent Israeli settlers from entering its member countries. And there has been a move to ban or at least label products made in Israeli settlements.

Prof. Pardo says the kind of “megaphone diplomacy” seen this week signals that Europe, which prefers dialogue over punitive measures like sanctions, feels it cannot get through to the Israeli administration and is trying to send a message not only to the government but also Israel’s voters ahead of Jan. 22 elections.

“We see a much more assertive EU … that is sending a message to the Israeli government that we are not willing to play the games by your rules,” he says. “We have a completely different set of rules. It’s either you follow us, or for the first time we will react in a different way than you’re used to.”

The best, and perhaps only, way to get EU-Israel relations back on track and avoid further deterioration, such as the EU refusing to upgrade trade and technological agreements with Israel that would otherwise become quickly outdated, is to engage in meaningful negotiations with Palestinians, says Prof. Primor.

Whether those negotiations lead to real peace isn’t as important, he says, pointing to the effect of signing the 1993 Oslo Accords.

“Immediately we became the blue-eyed boy of the EU and we could get all the advantages that we wanted, all the modifications of the agreements that we wanted,” he says. “This could happen again.”

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