The EU and Israel: Partnership and the Weight of History

Written by | Thursday, September 28th, 2017

The repercussions of the 1967 Six Day war are still being felt today. The most immediate outcome – the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – were all condemned in UN Security Resolution 242 of the same year. Although Israel later gave Sinai back to Egypt and withdrew from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, it still maintains control over these territories including an accelerated settlement construction under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This shift towards a hardline policymaking neglected the view of Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who said: “If I have to choose between a small Israel, without territories, but with peace, and a greater Israel without peace, I prefer a small Israel.” Ben Gurion was seeking to preserve Israel as a Jewish homeland, which would not be possible with a large share of Arabs on its territory. However, he also understood that a permanent occupation of Gaza and the West Bank would undermine Israel’s security and its democracy.

The leadership of Benjamin Netenyahu has seen a major deterioration in its relations with the European Union. In his opinion, the EU, being the Palestinian authority’s largest donor, is siding with the Palestinians. In Brussels’s opinion, the Israelis do what they can to make the lives of ordinary Palestinians miserable. Despite Israeli claims though, the EU does not sympathize with the Islamists, such as Hamas who controls the Gaza Strip.

The start of the Arab Spring in 2011 further deteriorated prospects for a peace deal and the two-state solution that had been the basis of the Madrid conference and the Oslo accords of the 1990s. Moreover, the turbulent developments across the Arab countries have increased the prospects of Islamists taking control of southern Syria and eventually all of the country, which alarmed the Israelis who are already fearful of the turmoil in Jordan and Egypt.

In a broad sense, the Middle Eastern conflict is an example of the EU’s inability to translate its close cultural and trade ties into a diplomatic tool. The EU prefers to keep on rebuilding infrastructure in the occupied territories to see it destroyed time and time again. It keeps importing goods from Israel – for a total of €13.2 billion last year – but is unable to exert political influence in return. Brussels goes on protesting against the Israeli occupation or the building of new settlements, yet its appeals go unheeded by the Israeli leadership. Israeli students and researchers participate in EU funding programs but that does not seem to temper the current Israeli government’s hostility towards the EU.

It’s hard to predict how the current dynamics is going to change under Benjamin Netanyahu and the new administration in the White House. Yet, with Israel’s domestic policy shifting dramatically to the right over the past 10 years, a loss of power for the ruling Likud party would very likely mean a little with regards to attitudes towards the Palestinians. However, the EU must still stick to its founding values such as respect for international law and continue to pursue a close, albeit momentarily unhappy, relationship with Israel.

‘The EU and Israel – Partnership and the Weight of History’ – Commentary by Toby Vogel – Centre for European Policy Studies.

(The Commentary can be downloaded here)

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