EU cannot receive racist minister Ben Gvir on Europe Day in Israel

Op-eds / Israel and Europe

Many Europeans would look at Israel and say that democracy and occupation cannot go together. They are right. Others would say that Israel is a thriving democracy and appreciate the impressive demonstrations calling to preserve the democratic order in Israel. They are right too.

For 18+ weeks huge mass grassroots movements demonstrations coupled by civil society are taking place all over the country, outcrying the values of democracy, separation of power, civil, political, and social rights, human rights, and protecting minorities. The result of these demonstrations was halting the judicial “reform” to give time for discussions between the government and the opposition on a broad consensus solution.

If the Israeli liberal democratic camp prevails, this is the best chance for a future solution to the Palestinian problem. When Israelis fear for their own basic democratic rights it is much easier to acknowledge the horrors of occupation under which the Palestinians lack basic rights and even to identify with their suffering. More and more Israelis also understand the dangers of Israel’s creeping annexation of the occupied territories to Israel’s democracy.

Yet the heads of the EU have largely shied away from stressing the importance of preserving Israeli liberal democracy. EU’s low profile can be explained by a reluctance to interfere in the internal debate in Israel and by the convergence of interest between the EU and the current government of Israel when it comes to Ukraine, and the move to Real-politic foreign policy style declared and conducted by HR/VP Joseph Borrell.

When Iranian drones are used by Russia to attack Ukraine, on the border of the EU, Israeli military intelligence of Iran’s weaponry is valuable. Purchases from the Israeli defence industry is desired by some EU member states. Israeli gas is coming through Egypt to the EU or helping the Egyptians to export more of their gas to the EU.

Yet what has the EU received in return for ignoring to speak its values in the Israeli case? The Israeli Prime Minister Secretariat has allocated Itamar Ben Gvir, Minister for National Security, to represent the Israeli government on Europe Day this Tuesday (9 May). Behind creeping annexation and violent settlers are the same forces that have forged Itamar Ben-Gvir’s anti-democratic racist political party “Otzma Yehudit”.

Europe Day is annually celebrated by a reception hosted by the EU Delegation to Israel. A representative of the government always speaks. Last year it was Nitzan Horwitz from Merez, a year beforehand it was Meirav Michaeli from the Labour Party. If the PM Secretariat would have sent another minister, for example from the Likud party, the EU Delegation would probably welcome him/her politely.

This has been the EU’s  informal stance so far: to work with the moderate ministers in the government and ignore the radical right wing “Religious Zionism”. Now the messy conduct of the Israeli government made this stance a formal one.

Israelis do not wish the EU to try and interfere with the internal processes in Israel. Any EU attempt to interfere would also be counter-productive, as many Israelis view the EU as pro-Palestinian and have a negative image of the EU when it comes to political issues. Yet what about Israelis who have been demonstrating in the streets in the past 4 months? Most likely they would appreciate to hear the democratic values the EU stands for pronounced much louder and clearer by heads of the EU. Values do not necessarily contradict real-politic.

Convergence of interests can easily lead to yielding of values. But when yielding of values comes from the EU, is a not only disappointing, it also blows up in the EU’s face to an embarrassing mini-diplomatic crisis it now has to solve.

One needs to remember that it takes two to tango. Peace cannot be reached when the Palestinians are divided. Since 2006, Palestinians are split between two undemocratic regimes. Two million Palestinians are under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, and about 3.5 million under the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmud Abbas. Also, Palestinian public opinion is pro-terror and anti-peace.

Still, strengthening the pro-liberal-democratic camp in Israel is one answer to keep a better chance to one day resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is also a way to warm up Israelis public opinion on the EU. In the future these Israelis may support Borrell’s initiative to join the Saudi/Arab peace initiative with the EU’s Special Privilege Partnership proposed to Israel and the Palestinians in 2013.

At the time of writing this op-ed the EU had not taken its final situation on how to handle the diplomatic mini-crisis with Israel around the planned reception on Europe Day. Later, the EU Delegation in Israel decided to cancel the reception on Europe Day (but kept the planned public cultural event).

Beforehand, EU spokesperson said that the EU was consulting internally and with its member states. He underlined that the EU does not endorse the political views of Ben-Gvir and his party as they stand in stark contrast to EU’s values and principles. Europe Day has indeed become a chance for the EU to speak its liberal democratic values.

This article is from “The Brussels Times“, from March 8th, 2023.

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