Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s July 11-12 visit to Brussels differs considerably from his UAE visit last week. The message Lapid conveyed in Abu Dubai was one of continuity and praise for his predecessors. Lapid hailed the Abraham Accords, thanked former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his accomplishment and pledged to continue seeking normalization with the Arab world. The Brussels visit, on the other hand, reverses Netanyahu’s foreign policy and places it on a new path.
Netanyahu, his Likud party ministers and their right-wing partners focused in recent years on delegitimizing the European Union (EU). They portrayed the organization as a rival of Israel, occasionally refused to meet its leadership, castigated European ambassadors, belittled European efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, encouraged division among EU member states in order to undermine consensus on resolutions it sought to avert, and forged alliances with European leaders critical of the EU who weakened democracy in their countries and promoted populism, nationalism and sometimes even antisemitism.
The outcome is a jarring dissonance between the EU’s centrality for Israel and the extent of cooperation with it on issues of security, diplomacy, the economy, research and development, culture and sports, tourism and more – and the Israeli political discourse on the EU, which has trickled down into public opinion and shaped a prevailing perception of the organization as more foe than friend. This, along with the mistrust of top EU leaders (among them Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Emmanuel Macron) of Netanyahu, and their sharp opposition to the former prime minister’s annexation intentions and policy on the Palestinian issue, prompted a crisis in relations.
Gabi Ashkenazi’s May 2020 appointment as foreign minister signaled the beginning of change. From his first day in office, he underscored the EU’s importance for Israel and the need to improve relations with it. He took time to meet with a series of European foreign ministers, forged a positive relationship with the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, and was invited to an informal meeting with European foreign ministers. Germany’s presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2020 contributed to an improved climate between Israel and the EU, and even prompted reexamination of renewing the high-level dialogue (the Association Council) between the sides, last held in 2012.
However, the scope of Ashkenazi’s ability to act was limited by coalition agreements in a Netanyahu-led government and the political crisis. Therefore, other than the personal embrace he was accorded by his European counterparts – in what was also a demonstration of their unhappiness with Netanyahu – any significant progress he might have achieved with the Europeans would have been hijacked by Netanyahu, a scenario the Europeans did not want to see. Netanyahu, for his part, curtailed Ashkenazi’s efforts to achieve real change in the Israeli foreign service, inter alia by holding up government approval of 35 ambassadorial and consular appointments for over six months, among them of Israel’s designated EU ambassador Haim Regev.
Lapid picks up where Ashkenazi left off, but under far improved conditions. He, too, highlights the importance of relations with the EU and the need to bolster them. Unlike Ashkenazi, who was unfamiliar with the European issue when he assumed office, Lapid has long been active in the European arena. His foreign policy approach, which he formulated while serving in the opposition and building himself up as a natural candidate for the foreign minister’s post, was one of dialogue and engagement even with international actors critical of Israel whom Netanyahu treated aggressively with boycotts and condemnations. Lapid met often with European ambassadors, guests and special envoys. He conducted briefings and tours for them and maintained ongoing contact with them even when disagreements arose. Lapid also emphasized the importance of ties with Europe’s liberal democracies, even after taking office, contrary to the warm relations Netanyahu cultivated with leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
AHEAD OF the Brussels visit, Lapid demonstrated that he and the new government are accepting the EU’s rules of play regarding the Palestinian territories. Israel’s willingness to join the Creative Europe program under the condition of a territorial clause that excludes the settlements from the culture program was a correct and positive move. Israel must participate in as many European programs as possible given their benefit for specific sectors and for the country as a whole. The Netanyahu governments vacillated on this matter, and thereby missed opportunities in the European arena.
Lapid’s decision to hold his first European visit in Brussels rather than Berlin, Paris or London also conveys a message of change. Previous Israeli governments chose to advance bilateral ties with specific European states, and to sideline the EU to the extent possible. High-level Israeli visits to Brussels were rare. Even though Lapid is certainly aware of the importance of relations with Israel’s specific allies on the continent, his decision reflects an upgraded importance that Israeli foreign policy attributes to the EU.
Lapid would be well advised to invite Borrell to visit Israel. The previous government rejected Borrell’s attempts to schedule such a visit and that, too, needs to be rectified. Lapid’s European policy could also focus on expanding Israeli participation in European programs, chief among them the Horizon Europe research and innovation program that embarks this year on a new path; resuming the Israel-EU Association Council under France’s Council presidency during the first half of 2022 in light of his good ties with Macron; and encouraging the EU to help improve Israeli-Palestinian relations and advance the two-state solution. The latter should include a positive Israeli approach to a 2013 EU proposal on granting Israel and the Palestinians a Special Privileged Partnership with the EU once they achieve peace, a proposal to which Israel has yet to respond officially.
Lapid could also try to mobilize Israeli ties with the EU for the benefit of other regional arenas of value to its interests – the Mediterranean, the Gulf, North Africa and the Red Sea. The EU recently issued an update of its Southern Neighborhood policy regarding its Mediterranean neighbors, which offers Israel and the “normalization states” opportunities for partnerships with Europe in multilateral projects. The EU also serves as an observer in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), of which Israel and the Palestinian Authority are members, and it also plays a key role in the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), in which Israel is eligible for a senior post that it has not filled for several years due to diplomatic priorities and budgetary constraints.
Already in its first weeks in office, the new government is engaging in energetic diplomacy. That includes a significant improvement of relations damaged during Netanyahu’s time – with the Democrats in the US, with Jordan and now with the EU. Lapid’s Brussels visit is an excellent jump-start of significant improvement in Israel’s relations with an important strategic ally. In terms of its foreign policy, the “government of change” is signaling, for now, that it intends to deliver the goods.
**The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 13 July 2021