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May 10, 2013 1:16 pm

Happy Europe Day

avatar by Arsen Ostrovsky

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EU flag. Photo: S. Solberg J.

As Europeans come together to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of Europe Day today, the time is right to pause and reflect on the state of Israel-EU relations, on our extraordinary achievements and on the challenges that lie ahead.

Europe and Israel are united not only by geographic proximity, but also by shared values of democracy, freedom, respect for human rights and the pursuit of greater prosperity. This has resulted in more than five decades of trade, joint political cooperation, tourism and cultural exchanges.

Despite most of Europe being in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis, the EU is still Israel’s largest trading partner, with total trade amounting to some 29.4 billion euros ($38.6 billion) in 2011, an increase of 45 percent from 2009. The EU remains Israel’s major source of imports and the second largest market for exports, behind the U.S.

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Israel’s global leadership and expertise in high-tech, green technology and health care is in constant high demand in Europe.

Last year, 2012, was Israel’s best tourism year on record, with more than 3.5 million visitors, many of them from Europe. This will only improve with Israel’s recent ratifying of the Open Skies Agreement with the EU. This will open up new markets and make air travel more competitive and less expensive.

Israel is also becoming increasingly more involved in European multilateral organizations. In May 2010, the OECD unanimously voted to invite Israel to join its prestigious ranks, and in September 2011, Israel became the first non-European member of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Last year, the EU and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding to deepen scientific cooperation in the fields of energy and water desalination, while the European Parliament also ratified the ACAA (Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products) with Israel, an unprecedented agreement that will facilitate imports of high-quality, low-cost Israeli pharmaceuticals into the EU, increasing medicinal choices for European patients and healthcare professionals.

In the last few years, Israel has also held an increasing number of government-to-government meetings at the highest levels with various European allies, including the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and Germany. As a result, a number of significant bilateral agreements have been signed in areas of high-tech, green energy, culture and the sciences.

In March this year, President Shimon Peres gave a historic address in Strasbourg before the 754-member European Parliament, which represents each of the 27 member states of the EU.

Yet, at the same time as we must recognize and applaud Israel’s impressive achievements on the European stage, we mustn’t sweep under the carpet the many challenges that still remain.

First and foremost is the fact that anti-Semitism in Europe has reached levels unprecedented since before the Holocaust. From physical assaults to Holocaust denial and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, virtually no part of Europe today is free of the evil of anti-Semitism and hatred that led to Europe’s darkest period.

Today’s anti-Semitism, however, is being directed not only against local Jewish communities and individuals, but also in the public vilification and delegitimization of the State of Israel, including comparing Israelis to Nazis, burning Israeli flags in public and branding Zionism as racism.

More needs to be done by the political leaders of Europe to condemn urgently and unequivocally all manifestations of anti-Semitism and take immediate action against perpetrators.

The EU must also do more against Hezbollah, a mutual threat both to the Jewish state and to the European continent, on whose soil it continues to weave a path of terror and destruction. The evidence that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization is irrefutable. Whatever shred of doubt may have existed was put to rest by Bulgaria’s investigation into the Burgas attack of last July. What is needed now is not more evidence, but political will by the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization once and for all.

European governments, and the EU as an institution, must also cease funding NGOs whose primary purpose is to delegitimize and vilify the State of Israel and undermine our democracy. No sovereign state would tolerate this.

As a member of the Middle East Quartet and a signatory to the Oslo Accords, the EU also has an important role to play in advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. However, that will require the EU to become a more honest broker. This means the EU cannot on one hand condemn Israeli settlements out of all proportion while turning a blind eye to Palestinian terror and intransigence, which continue to be the real impediment to peace.

Today, some 1.5 million Jews still live in Europe, while many more Jews of European heritage have chosen to return home to Israel. With them, they have brought a rich and beautiful tapestry of European culture. We see this in the arts, culture, food, architecture and much more.

As we prepare to face ever-increasing challenges, ranging from national security and regional geopolitical issues, Iran and the economy, it will be more pertinent than ever to strengthen and deepen the bond between the EU and the State of Israel.

The Israeli-Jewish Congress will continue to work tirelessly to support the EU-Israel alliance and ensure that we can navigate together whatever challenges are presented before us.

Arsen Ostrovsky is the director of research at the Israeli-Jewish Congress, an Israeli non-profit organization focused on strengthening relations between the EU and Israel. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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