The EU and Israel on a course for collision

The walkout of Israeli MKs in a meeting with the European Union is another sign of their deterioriating relationship

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The world of diplomacy seldom allows raw emotions to be displayed in public, most certainly not on the level seen last week in the Israeli Knesset following a speech by the German European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

A festive occasion, to celebrate the close relationship between the European Union and Israel, turned into an unsavory exchange of accusations with no punches pulled.

If anyone needed further evidence of the growing tensions between Israel and the EU, the walkout of a number of Israeli MK and members of the cabinet in fury regarding what they had heard from Mr. Schulz provided plenty of such evidence.

What the European Parliament president saw as an attempt to embark on a frank dialogue between friends, was described by some among the Israeli leadership as misguided and inaccurate at best and sheer lies or even anti-Semitic at worst.

Delivering his speech in German, caused his critics not only to lose their temper, but also their judgment.

Choosing your words wisely

Mr. Schulz should have perhaps been more careful with his choice of words, but the general gist of his message to the Israeli legislature was far from new or provoking in its nature. The Europeans have been advocating for peace based on a two state solution for decades, and it became a European platform in the Venice declaration of 1980.

Needless to say, condemning the harshness of occupation, criticizing the blockade on Gaza, or describing the expansion of settlements as “a stumbling block to a solution” was not by any stretch of the imagination a departure from what Israeli officials are hearing in any single visit to European capitals.

However, Israeli politicians are beginning to grasp that this criticism could eventually lead to international sanctions, hence their leap to discredit whoever is the messenger.

Mr. Schulz’s remark that "A Palestinian youth asked me why an Israeli can use 70 cubic litters of water and a Palestinian just 17," left him exposed to attack by Israeli leaders, especially because by his own admission he hadn’t checked the exact figures.

If the Europeans can be accused of anything, it is mainly of inaction in making their views count. For far too long they have let the U.S. to lead, almost exclusively, the efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

Yossi Mekelberg

This was exactly what some of the right wing MKs needed in order to go on the attack and seize the occasion to accuse their guest of attempting to delegitimize the Jewish state via the BDS campaign. A campaign, which they accuse the EU of being part of.

Sending a clear message

Mr. Schulz might not have got his figures correct, but nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence of the Jewish settlers using disproportionately more water than their Palestinian neighbors in the occupied West Bank. What the European Union must have realized by now is that unless they support all Israeli policies, its troublesome past with the Jewish people will be dug up and used against them.

The burden of history leaves very little room for an honest dialogue, as criticism of Israeli policies is regarded by the Israeli leadership as a proof, if one is needed, that European anti-Semitism has never died – it has just manifested itself in an attempt to undermine the Jewish state.

This approach can only be described as absurd.

Israel enjoys preferential economic and cultural agreements with the EU members compared to most other countries outside the union, despite EU discontent with Israeli policies in the region.

It would, of course, be foolish to deny that anti-Semitism does exist in Europe, as do other forms of racism, and it should be utterly condemned and eradicated. Nevertheless, it does not make the EU institutionally or its policies anti-Semitic.

Branding any critic of Israel as anti-Semitic has become an obvious means of Israeli emotional blackmail used to divert attention from the criticism itself. The Europeans, as many others around the world, are increasingly frustrated with the stubbornness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which seems to be resistant to logical reasoning and hence a peaceful solution.

If the Europeans can be accused of anything, it is mainly of inaction in making their views count. For far too long they have let the U.S. to lead, almost exclusively, the efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. Europe has been content to bankroll the Oslo process, despite it seeing very little impact.

The broad consequences of occupation

The Middle East and North Africa are areas of great importance for Europe in many regards for energy security, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and immigration.

Geographically, these countries rest on the EU’s very doorstep. Instability in the region is bound to have a far reaching impact on Europe.

The refusal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to disappear from the international agenda is perceived, as endangering European national (or union) interests.

For a long time the mood in the corridors of Brussels is that, even if the Palestinian leadership is not blameless for the lack of progress in bringing peace, it is an asymmetric conflict in which the Israelis bear more responsibility. Israel is the more powerful force and, even more importantly, is an occupying force.

Nothing is seen by the Europeans as a bigger hindrance to a peace agreement than the enlargement of the settlements, which physically and psychologically make a Palestinian state unrealistic, and a one state solution an unfortunate inevitable reality.

The daily misery of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, is also of grave concern to Europe.

As was indicated by Mr. Schulz in his address to the Knesset, the blockade of Gaza causes despair which fuels extremism and can only lead to greater insecurity, especially for the Israelis.

The Israeli government rejects portraying the situation in Gaza as a blockade. But for most objective observers, this tiny territory is under siege. It is encircled from both land and sea with no air transport, leaving it at the mercy of Israel and Egypt.

This provokes the very extremists that Israel cited as the reason for her military and political measures against it. The Israelis might not like the Hamas government and have the full right to demand that rockets will not be fired from Gaza into her territory, but punishing an entire population is against international law, moral values and can only breed hatred and violence.

The Israeli human rights organization Gisha (Access), recently highlighted the hardships caused by Israel not allowing construction material from Israel to reach Gaza for the private sector. It has increased unemployment by many thousands and exacerbates an already acute shortage in housing.

And this is just one example of the measures taken by Israel that the fuel resentment among EU states.

Next steps

Gradually the EU and its members are growing impatient with Israeli policies and thus increasingly call for collective action. The most obvious one would be to target goods and services which come from the Israeli settlements. Others would like to take measures against any Israeli entity which engages with the settlements.

The Israeli political system has become complacent over the years concerning European warnings which were never followed through with corresponding policies.

When the tide is turning and there seems to be readiness to implement some punitive measures, Israel calls foul play and worse, creates hysteria by accusing Europe of embedded anti-Semitism.

As unpleasant as this message is for Israel, her national interest would best be served by sensibly weighing the message, instead of attacking the messenger.

Continuing the occupation can only lead to international isolation and confrontation not only with Europe but also with her closest ally, the United States.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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