Opinion: Takeaways from 3 days in Brussels – Israel’s standing with EU


Five takeaways after meeting with European officials from a range of departments and offices, all working on issues of relevance for Israel

A group of Israeli journalists, including representation of i24NEWS, recently visited the European Commission’s headquarters to Brussels for a study trip, during which they met with officials from a range of departments and offices, all working on issues of relevance for Israel.

While the meetings were almost entirely and strictly off-record, there were some shareable takeaways.

A pro-Israel EU, a pro-EU Israel?

In the Israeli mind, the European Union is a stand-in for the role of Europe in Jewish history – which is a big obstacle and adds to the stark contrast between the Zionist ethos of depending only on thyself and the EU axiom of multilateral cooperation. The starting points – historically and culturally – are not great.

So, it’s hardly surprising that the EU brand in Israel is so poor. But today’s reality is different – on both the European side and among Israelis working directly with institutions in Belgium. There’s a sense that the relationship is at a peak, and that many European officials, from the top down, see Jerusalem as a promising partner.

Cooperation, for example, on the Horizon Europe research program is seen as critical for Israel’s academic and high-tech sectors, even if the wider public is less aware. Many European officials are willing to overlook differences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – in the name of cooperation in other issues – as well as the Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, present. The sense in Brussels is that the EU is the top donor to the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, an institution needed by Israel. That funding arguably entitles the EU to leverage in the conflict and to staking out positions, including those at odds with Israeli priorities – such as a push for Palestinian elections in EU public statements that strikes Israeli ears as naïve. 

Still, overall, the Israeli-European story is less one of the Palestinian issue and more one of other cooperation. But why? And why now? The other takeaways serve to connect the dots between Europe’s relationship with Israel and the other issues on Europe’s doorstep.

The Iran nuclear deal, and Russia

Some thinking in Brussels seems to lean toward rejecting a nuclear deal with Iran even if the Islamic Republic was to agree in full to the EU’s terms. Why? Because of Tehran’s supply of drones to Russia for its use in Ukraine.

That takeaway – after decades in which a nuclear deal has been a flagship European project – underscores just how big a gift Iran has given to Israeli foreign policy. Iran has taken an ax to its own relationship with Europe, and for all of Israel’s constant actions on the deal, the real coup de grace might have come from Tehran itself, with Jerusalem doing nothing other than sitting on the sidelines.

On the other hand, would the Europeans actually walk away in a moment of truth, even with an agreement on the table? A reluctance to take a position points to the uncertainty, and so Israelis against the deal should stay wary.

The fight over the fight for democracy

Is promoting democracy a top priority of the EU’s goals in the Middle East? The European bloc wants stability and prosperity, and at times, priorities in Brussels seem to place those ahead of democracy.

Of course, the EU is not abandoning its support for NGOs or its talking points about human rights. But given the centrality of democracy promotion to the EU’s identity, indications here and there of its demotion are striking.

Across the sessions, Brussels seems torn. Between the old world – in which common values of democracy built the EU and saved Europe from falling again into continental war – and the new world, where a migrant crisis, rifts with Poland and Hungary, and the crises generated by the war in Ukraine have focused minds on power politics. The EU is wondering whether it has been mugged by reality, all the while trying to protect its jewels.

That foreign policy identity crisis, of course, comes into play with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Israel, in the end, is better at democracy than others in Europe’s neighborhood, whether east or south.

Israel: The black sheep of the EU neighborhood

When the EU launched its neighborhood policy decades ago, the goal was to increase Europe’s soft power in nearby states. So the EU dedicated a full directorate-general to the task and earmarked budgets to support programs and initiatives meant to bring the neighbors closer to Europe geopolitically.

For a time, it must have seemed to be working: The Arab Spring unleashed democratic energy to the south. To the east, neighbors were eager to latch onto Europe, either for its chute toward Western democracy and wealth or for the geopolitical leverage on Russia.

Today, the neighborhood is in relative shambles. The Arab Spring morphed into civil war and spawned the migrant crisis, while policy in the east became engulfed by the war in Ukraine.

In the morass, Israel stands out as an exception, as being perhaps the only country in the EU’s neighborhood not to ask for money – after all, the Jewish state’s per capita GDP is broadly on par with Europe’s. On democracy and governance, too, Israel is ahead of most. A black sheep, in a positive sense.

The religion of the Ukraine war

 Russian domination of Ukraine may well constitute an existential threat to Europe. But at a popular and rhetorical level, affinity for Ukraine is expressed less in security or geopolitical terms, and more as an article of religious devotion.

In Brussels and beyond, the cause of Ukraine comes across as a sacred one, framed as a defensive crusade for the European secular religion of democracy and human rights. The devotion comes across in the sense of urgency of support for Ukraine and the premium placed on unity and fidelity.

The devotional nature of public discussion risks crowding out legitimate questions on policy – as critics and even insiders often note. But Europe feels a genuine imperative, the merits of the conflict are broadly agreed upon, and there are worse religions.

Israel’s rhetorical support for the Ukrainian cause is therefore important, maybe more important even than providing arms – for which Israel seems to be under surprisingly little pressure. And internalizing the centrality of Ukraine helps in internalizing why Iran’s siding with Russia has proved so fatal for ties with Europe.

All in keeping with a bloc largely intent – in this golden age in ties – on working with Israel and not against it.

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