Israel and the EU maintain exceedingly close relations with each other. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner and has extensive cultural and political ties to the country. Despite this, Israeli public discourse often portrays the EU as an opponent – not least due to their differences over the Middle East Peace Process and Israel’s settlement policy, as well as the EU’s continued defence of the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Israelis tend to view the EU as being less significant than it once was. This is partly due to its internal divisions and increasingly inward-looking nature, as reflected in issues ranging from Brexit to the refugee crisis, to the rise of populist parties in Europe. Many Israelis feel that the EU is losing its importance on the global stage – and, as such, is no longer a key partner for their country. Israel considers European actors to be less relevant to the broad economic, political, and security challenges that Israel faces in the Middle East – particularly the series of conflicts in the region that are increasingly defined by military power.
Israelis are far more concerned about the US’ positioning, given that the country continues to be Israel’s strongest ally and is perhaps the only international actor that can persuade Israel to substantially change its policies (even if the Trump administration is broadly uncritical of these policies). Israelis also see the US as an important ally in efforts to roll back Iran’s regional activities and to undo the JCPOA.
Israel attributes significant importance to Russia, especially in relation to Iran and Syria. Russian forces’ involvement in Syria has constrained Israel’s freedom of action in the country, because it feels the need to coordinate with Moscow on Israeli military action there. As a result, Prime Minister Netanyahu has invested significant effort in strengthening his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu portrays this as a foreign policy success to the Israeli public, although it has not achieved Israel’s strategic goal of pushing Iran out of Syria.
Many among the Israeli policy elite believe that gaps between Israel and the EU on the Palestinian issue are bound to widen, that an improvement in Israel-EU ties is unlikely in the coming years, and that Israel may benefit more from building alliances with other regions and emerging superpowers. In this, they emphasize the development of relations with Asian countries, particularly China. Nevertheless, Israel’s opposition parties increasingly understand the need to improve ties with the EU.
Some actions taken by the EU in recent years have had an impact on Israeli decisionmaking. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call to Netanyahu in February 2016, in which she voiced concern about a proposed bill that would limit Israeli civil society, reportedly led him to row back on some components of the legislation. Europe may have also played a role in preventing Israel’s forced evacuation of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank. The EU’s and some of its member states’ insistence on adding territorial clauses that exclude the settlements to their bilateral agreements with Israel have also had an impact, forcing the Israeli government to effectively acquiesce on several occasions. But these steps remain largely haphazard rather than part of a concerted effort to change Israeli behavior.
If anything, Netanyahu’s government has increasingly focused – unsuccessfully – on pushing the EU to fall in line with its positions. The undertaking was based on the perception that the EU values cooperation with Israel more than it did in the past, given Europe’s growing security concerns in the Middle East.
Keenly aware of intra-European divisions on Middle East policy, the Israeli government has increased its attempts to exploit these differences in recent years. Israel has traditionally focused on the development of ties with individual member states rather than EU institutions. Recently, such engagement has evolved into efforts to weaken the EU and increase divisions among its members, thereby preventing a consensus between them on issues that affect Israel. The undertaking has sometimes borne fruit from Netanyahu’s perspective, bringing EU decision-making to a relative halt. For example, since June 2016, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council has not published conclusions regarding the Middle East Peace Process, as it regularly did in the past. Nevertheless, Israel’s failure to significantly shift the EU’s or member states’ positions towards those of the US on the Iran and Palestinian issues illustrates the limitations of this approach.
In recent years, the Netanyahu government has come close to portraying the EU as a foe of Israel. Ministers have accused the bloc of financing boycotts of Israel and terrorist organizations, passing anti-Israel resolutions, and jeopardizing the country’s (and Europe’s) security by supporting the JCPOA. Netanyahu even reportedly refused to meet Federica Mogherini, then the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, in June 2018. The formation of a more moderate Israeli government would provide an opportunity to improve relations between Israel and the EU, as well as enhance high-level political dialogue between the sides. It might also lead Israel to finally give a positive response to the EU’s offer to establish a Special Privileged Partnership after peace is achieved. While this would not resolve the existing policy differences between the sides, it might give the EU greater influence on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
There remains a significant gap between Israelis’ negative perceptions of the EU (as a result of their foreign policy differences) and the scope of cooperation between Israel and the bloc. In 2019 a poll conducted by the Mitvim Institute found that 45 percent of Israelis considered the EU to be more of a foe to Israel than a friend. Only 27 percent thought the opposite. Disillusionment with the EU is also widespread among left-leaning Israelis due to the bloc’s perceived inactivity in advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Consequently, there is no sizeable pro-EU constituency in Israel. This has helped Israel’s right-wing leadership dismiss any European criticism of Israel’s policy as anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of the Mitvim Institute.