On Europe's foreign agenda: how to handle Israel

The future of Israeli-European relations will be on the agenda when European Union foreign ministers meet today to broach the subject of Israel. 

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Members of the Palestinian delegation and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, applaud after a vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's status to non-member observer state passed in the United Nations in New York, last month. Fourteen EU governments supported the Palestinian bid and 12 abstained.

Compared with Americans, Europeans express more sympathies with Palestinians in their dispute with Israel. But their elected officials do not necessarily share that majority view, at least diplomatically, something that could be on display today when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels

While also not as unequivocal in their support toward Israel as their American counterparts, European decision-makers, from British prime ministers to French Socialists, have clearly aligned with Israel’s goals, and when they've disagreed, they've done so only reluctantly.

So European support for the Palestinian bid to become a “nonmember observer state” at the UN last month and, days later, vociferous condemnation of Israel for announcing the authorization for new settlements were a double blow to a country that usually expects a European embrace.

This is not the beginning of some downward spiral for Israeli-European relations, neither for bilateral trade nor diplomatic ties. But the recent rebukes have several significant origins, from mounting frustration with Israel’s settlement building to US inability to inch towards a resolution, especially as violence flares. Europe has long sat on the sidelines of the conflict, but positions like banning products from the settlements of Israel, whose No. 1 trade partner is Europe, are evolving and could help redefine Europe’s role in the conflict.

“Europeans have, so far, not developed a narrative or tools for managing their Israeli relations,” says Daniel Levy, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “But I think Europe can have a very significant, bordering on game-changing, role, in reframing cost-benefit calculations for Israelis.”

Surprise abstentions

When the vote in the UN came up at the end of November to upgrade the Palestine Liberation Organization’s status to a nonmember state, one of the biggest surprises came not from the outcome itself, which was successful for Palestinians, but from whom Israel did not find at its side. “Yes” votes included France, Italy, and Spain, while some of Israel’s strongest allies including Great Britain and even Germany abstained.

A day later, when Israel said it would go ahead with plans for 3,000 homes, including in a controversial settlement known as E1. Several European governments, including those of France and Britain, summoned their Israeli ambassadors and threatened to recall them.

So far, that has not happened. And while the Czech Republic was the lone country to vote against the Palestinian state bid, giving the appearance of a united European front, in reality the 26 other European votes were divided, with 14 governments supporting the Palestinian bid and 12 abstaining.

Arab ties

But a new tone from Europe has been set – and from some unexpected corners.

Today the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex domestic issue in Europe, with overlays of historic guilt from the Holocaust at the same time that countries, especially France, have deep Arab ties. And with the recent waves of immigration that have coincided with rising anti-Muslim sentiment, fault lines are blurry and changing. The migration has, in some cases, created the fear of more anti-Semitism, and yet at the same time, some former anti-Semites on the far right have embraced Israel as they condemn the “Islam-ization” of Europe.

In France, all of those dynamics are clear. During a recent trip to France by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend a ceremony in the memory of four Jewish people killed at a school by Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah, France’s President François Hollande said: “You represent a country that was created after the Holocaust to serve as a refuge for Jews.”  “That is why every time a Jew is targeted because they are Jewish, Israel is affected.”

Today, David Bitan, a French and Israeli citizen, says he feels betrayed by France’s support of the Palestinian UN bid and was upset by the decision of several European governments – including Britain and France – to summon the Israeli ambassador to their countries earlier this week to express their disagreement with the home construction projects.

“It’s just baloney what people and governments over the world are saying to Israel,” he says, adding that foreign governments should instead focus their complaints on issues that he thinks are more serious and deadlier such as violence in Syria and Africa.

Palestinian statehood popular

But Paris resident Souad Sadaoui joins a majority when she says she is wearied by decades of conflict and favors a two-state solution. According to a recent poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion, 78 percent of those surveyed support a Palestinian state, up from 70 percent two years ago. In a Pew global attitudes survey, Western Europeans sympathize far more with Palestinians than their American counterparts.

Jean-François Daguzan, deputy director of the think tank Foundation for Strategic Research in France, says popular support for Palestine has both historic and contemporary origins. “At the end of the day you have a fair amount of people, who, for different reasons, some of them emotional, some of them ideological, or some simply based on a feeling of injustice, consider that the Palestinians need to have a state,” he says.

European countries spear-headed the idea of a “two-state" solution more than three decades ago, before the US or Israel. While they have often been seen as a counterbalance to US allegiance to Israel, they have maintained close ties with Israel, which often looks like societal divergence, says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “There has been a dichotomy between public opinion and the government,” he says.

Now, that could be changing as frustration mounts at Israel over settlement building. In May, the EU issued a stinging report on the subject, discussing the viability of the two-state solution and banning products in illegal settlements as one way to move the peace process forward.

European leaders may have bolstered Mahmoud Abbas now at the UN to reinforce their commitment to nonviolence, in the wake of the recent Gaza war. But there are also politics at play. 

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, says that European leaders are also frustrated with US inaction in a time when they have to consider domestic constituents. “Without a doubt, they have made it clear that they are no longer investing in the US as the principal arbiter of the conflict,” he says. “With a new crop of leaders in the middle of a European crisis looking to flex some muscle and look the part of the leader, and in the absence of US leadership, this is the way the drama played out.”

Many doubt that the EU wants to, or is capable of, playing a more meaningful and united role in the conflict. 

“I think that the weight of Europe is very limited and has always been, and I don’t think what’s happening now will change that,” says Alain Dieckhoff, an Israel expert and research director at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. But Mr. Levy disagrees, especially if the EU were to use its leverage on the issue of settlement goods. “Europe is Israel’s backyard,”he says. “Over time it could introduce a new dynamic into this.”

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