No one in Israel was particularly surprised when the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that Israeli annexation of territories would not go “unchallenged”. Foreign Minister Israel Katz opted for an aggressive response (compared with accepted diplomatic parameters), but was it necessary to unleash such undiplomatic “ammunition”?
Katz called Borrell’s style inappropriate, and then let rip in an inappropriate style of his own: “Borrell is not the paritz (lord of the manor) and we are not the Jews of the Diaspora who bow their heads. His style is inappropriate,” said Katz. “Gone are the days when anybody could threaten the Jews and the Jewish state. We will continue to build and develop all regions of the State of Israel and its capital Jerusalem.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Is this type of “megaphone” diplomacy, in which the sides trade verbal barbs on media platforms helpful to the already tense relationship between Israel and the EU? How does assailing a representative of the EU serve the State of Israel?
After all, the position of the EU, no matter the identity of its foreign policy chief, has been clear and well-known for four decades and offers nothing new. Back in the 1980s, the European Community adopted a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict considered revolutionary at the time: Two states for two people, with negotiations based on the 1967 border lines. The Community (which in the meantime has become the EU) said it would also welcome any other territorial arrangements (including land swaps) as long as they were agreed on by both sides. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” deviates from the conflict resolution principles laid out by the EU, which the international community (including the US) had accepted – UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Therefore, Borrell’s reaction to the Netanyahu government’s annexation discourse should come as no surprise.
It is hard to see how the EU, which imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, could fail to react to a unilateral Israeli annexation of land defined as occupied territory under international law. Israelis find it hard to understand the European mindset that respects international law, urges peaceful resolution of conflicts and respect for human and minority rights – whereas the Europeans have a hard time understanding Israeli reality of living by the sword and under Iron Dome. Nonetheless, the EU is still an important Israeli partner in many respects, and should be treated as such.
Borrell, who assumed office in November 2019, was never suspected of being overly sympathetic to Israel. As Spain’s Foreign Minister, he tried to lead a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. As the EU’s foreign policy chief he has partners for such a move in Luxembourg and probably in other EU capitals, too (Sweden did so in 2014, but some member states oppose such unilateral recognition). Nonetheless, despite Borrell’s desire to bolster the EU’s foreign policy, so far he has not affected significant change. Member states are divided on an array of foreign policy issues, including on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and this prevents decisions by the required consensus. The Israeli government, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, takes measures to foil European resolutions critical of its policies. Absent a consensus among the 27 member states, Borrell has to make do with expressing his opinion on the subject.
The policy adopted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past four years, of sidelining the EU’s involvement in the Palestinian issue and averting harsher measures against Israel has borne fruit. Since 2016, various EU states have blocked resolutions critical of Israeli policies. The EU Foreign Ministers have not adopted a significant resolution on Israel since then. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy and other states reportedly refused to join Borrell’s recent warning on annexation, and his statement was issued in his own name alone, not on the part of the EU.
Israeli government ministers have tended in recent years to respond harshly to the EU and to turn it into a target of incitement. For example, Energy Minister and security cabinet member Yuval Steinitz told the EU to “go to thousands of thousands of hell”. Katz’s response to Borell continued the same line. Was it necessary to aggressively respond to such expected comments by the EU foreign policy chief? Were the responses intended for Borrell’s ears or for those of right-wing Israeli voters towards the upcoming election? Either way, Foreign Minister Katz would do well to cease aggressive reactions that turn Israelis against the EU. The EU is an important partner of Israel in multiple fields, including trade and science, and shares common values with it. Katz would be better off saving the “heavy guns” for the bumpy, dangerous road on which the current government is leading the state should it choose to annex territories. Aggressive diplomacy may serve an election campaign agenda, but it is unclear what Israeli interest it serves, if any.
Dr. Maya Sion Tzidkiyahu is the Director of the Program on Israel-Europe Relations at the Mitvim Institute, Co-President of the Israeli Association for the Study of European Integration, and a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s European Forum.