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December 8, 2020 6:41 am

Israel’s Chance to Improve Relations With Europe

avatar by Raanan Eliaz


German Chancellor Angela Merkel alongside Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during her official visit to Jerusalem in 2018. Photo: Reuters/Oded Balilty.

The US election and its aftermath provided ample examples of why it would be better for Israel to have a true alliance with more than one ally. Even if there is no substitute for the United States, a responsible policy and long-term vision requires the establishment of close strategic ties between Israel and the European Union too.

Following the US presidential election, a golden opportunity presents itself: Israel and the European Union should rekindle their relations and return to the negotiating table. Exchanging opinions honestly and directly, and overcoming disagreements and stumbling blocks to collaborative ventures will serve all parties in tackling common challenges, some which can only be accomplished in partnership.

Since the State of Israel was established, Europe has been an important ally. Most of the founding generation of the state saw Europe as a second home, and embedded its central values ​​in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, binding them to the legal, political, and value system of the young state. The EU was and still is Israel’s main trading partner. Indeed, European involvement in the region contributes to Israel in many respects, including economic support for the Palestinians, which relieves Israel of a significant burden.

But there is an untapped potential in EU-Israel relations. Israel has an array of agreements and ties with the EU that would facilitate upgrading relations in a variety of areas. Tactical choices by top Israeli and European echelons over the past decade have resulted in a standstill, blocking progress — and in quite a few cases, even leading to regression.

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The dawn of the Biden administration will be characterized by internal restoration of American society and strengthening cooperation with the US’s natural allies. Along with confronting foreign challenges — first and foremost, the power struggle with China, Russia, and their satellites — Biden will reinstate the US in the transatlantic community and restore damaged ties with NATO and the European Union.

The sweeping implications will require Israel to readjust its policy. Strengthening ties with the moderate center in Europe, primarily the EU heavyweights in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels, will enable Israel to have the vital room needed to maneuver its interests.

In terms of key issues for Israel, Biden’s policy is likely to be highly similar to that of Germany in recent years. Israel will be viewed as a strategic asset and an ally, a valued partner in a rough region, to whose security there is a deep commitment. Biden’s US will continue to see strategic importance in the bilateral relationship with Israel and help maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over regional adversaries, presumably better than by the Trump administration.

Germany’s position in this regard is, of course, different; but its approach is similar. It was Germany, and not the US, which eventually provided Israel with game-changing nuclear submarines, thus ensuring, in the words of then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, “a decisive, relative, Israeli advantage.”

At the same time, both the US under Biden and present-day Germany believe that to advance Israeli’s long-term interests, a two-state solution should be the only option, and they will likely shelve the idea of ​​unilateral annexation. While both will demonstrate explicit opposition to a boycott of Israel and the BDS movement (recently outlawed in Germany), they will not shy away from warning that Israeli moves without coordination in that respect will lead to halting vital support such as US security aid or Germany’s backing in international forums.

President Biden will aspire to treat Europe as a true partner, promoting shared interests and values ​​together. The question is whether the EU will be up for that role. In order to reap the benefits, the EU will need to refresh its views on security challenges, so that it narrows the gap with core US policies. On the Iranian issue, for example, this will include the continuation and even exacerbation of restrictions alongside a conditional return to the JCPOA agreement (the Iran nuclear deal), while referring to Iran’s role in creating and fueling regional tensions. To impel dramatic change on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Europe will have to speak with one voice, and act as one coordinated body from within and while strategizing with the Biden administration.

Internally, Europe will be compelled to exercise disciplinary tactics with recalcitrant countries, protecting citizens from authoritarian leaders, for example in Hungary and Poland.

As far as Israeli policy toward Europe goes, rapprochement in recent years with non-liberal and rebellious regimes within the EU will do a disservice to its interests. With renewed American funding for various UN entities, it behooves Israel to act in order to engage Europe, and insist that future US-European funding involves revisiting shortcomings that lead to systemic discrimination against Israel in these bodies.

Whether Biden and Merkel join hands in their Middle East policy and the EU stands up to the challenge remain to be seen. In any case, an Israeli policy that brings these similar approaches into account will serve it in the long run. Alignment with America’s Biden and Europe’s Merkel should not be forced upon Israel, but pursued, as this can be a guiding beacon to adopting realistic and sensible policies to help Israel grow stronger and safer in the Mediterranean basin.

Raanan Eliaz is an expert on EU-Israel relations and the founder of Europe-Israel Network. Since the early 2000s he was engaged in the creation of a European movement to advance EU-Israel ties and has led as Founding Director of ELNET and the Forum of Strategic Dialogue (2007-2017).  Today, he is involved in creating a parallel movement on the Israeli side.

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