Israel shares many common interests with the 28-nation bloc of the European Union (EU) and the EU polity. In the context of Europe’s migrant crisis, First Vice President of the European Commission (EC), Frans Timmermans, stressed some of those interests when he spoke of the refugee crisis as currently overwhelming the EU, which can be expected to last and bring deep consequences.
Timmermans was quoted as saying, “[l]et’s be very straightforward and honest […] The refugee crisis is here to stay with us, for a long time […] We will all have to face the consequences of the refugee crisis — every single European, 500 million of us” (EuroActiv.com, 2015).
With calls for Israel to accept refugees from a longstanding “enemy” state increasing, the disquieting news is becoming increasingly alarming and raising many concerns in Israel.
In Europe, pressure is growing for its member states (MS) to meet their moral and legal obligations to provide safe refuge to those desperately trying to escape war and persecution. In Israel, the spotlight is being shone on the security threat posed by waves of migrants and their uncertain backgrounds. Israel’s Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, warned that illegal immigrants could be recruits of the Islamic State (IS).
According to Erdan, “[i]t is not unrealistic that [IS] and other terrorist groups operating in Sinai would take advantage of [migrants’] distress to recruit them […] The procedure according to which illegal migrants who enter Israel are taken to Immigration Authority and the police must be changed. This must be treated as a security issue that requires a solution” (Breaking News Israel, 2015).
Earlier this year IS openly threatened to send 500,000 migrants to Europe, stating that it would be a “psychological weapon.” Head of the EU’s judicial cooperation agency Eurojust, Michèle Coninsx, reflected on the migrant crisis as a security concern, stating in July that IS terrorists arriving in Europe could be making their way quite easily by hiding among migrants making the journey across the Mediterranean.
Trafficked migrants who aren’t terrorists are fulfilling a vital role for IS by financing its extremist cause. “It is an alarming situation,” said Coninsx, “because we see obviously that these smugglings are meant to sometimes finance terrorism and that these smugglings are used sometimes to have and ensure infiltrations by members of the Islamic State” (Daily Mail, 2015).
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of call for granting asylum to migrants acts on the discourse of the EU’s top prosecutor, Timmermans, who reified the significance of borders, even for an EU that boasts the importance of the free movement of people throughout Schengen.
Speaking in terms of Israel’s geopolitical conditions, Netanyahu doesn’t occupy a position of misanthropy. Israel is surrounded by hostile governments and non-state actors (NSAs). Netanyahu defended Israel’s position against attacks of indifference, and bewailing by the head of the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog, who said “Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for safe haven” (Times of Israel, 2015), in reference to Jewish persecution by the Nazis prior to the Holocaust.
In Europe, by demanding binding refugee quotas for all EU MS, Germany and France are effectively forcing the EU to choose between a collective “yes” or “no.” Angela Merkel and François Holland are implementing mechanisms that go one step further and simply force MS to accept obligatory refugee quotas. Holland backtracked on his words this past June when he opposed EU migrant quotas, saying that individual commitments are a better alternative — another sign of irresolution within the EU that Israel needs to take seriously.
Israel is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol and grants most asylum seekers the right to work. They’re eventually integrated into society once recognized as refugees. Although many EU states are opposed to distribution quotas, the idea underscores geography as an asset in the EU’s policy options – a luxury Israel doesn’t have. “Israel is a small country, a very small country,” noted Netanyahu, “that lacks demographic and geographic depth; therefore we must control our borders against illegal migrants and terrorism” (Bloomberg Business, 2015).
Looking to Kenya could provide possible, if even temporary, solutions to the refugee crisis. The Dadaab refugee camp was created in 1991 in northeastern Kenya as a result of and temporary solution to the war-ravaged Horn of Africa. It is a tale of success. After two decades, its numbers have grown to roughly 500,000 even though it was originally designed for 90,000. Dadaab attracts new refugees daily in addition to new aid agencies, the number of which now stands at 28.
The EU has been dragged into to a long and multifaceted conflict in Syria and Iraq for which it was painfully ill-prepared and to which there is no immediate end in sight. Israel, on the other hand, “has made a great effort,” voiced Yesh Atid chairman, Yair Lapid, “not to be involved in the events of Syria, so now we want to open a back door that will involve us in that war?”
With the slow erosion of the EU’s buffer, a virtually non-existent foreign policy, and the immense challenge of the EU to demonstrate its “actorness” in the face of an immense security challenge, Israel’s pragmatism has led to other but equally direct and effective aid initiatives.
Whether Europe and the EU see security alongside (and not in place of) their moral and legal obligations, and provide Europeans with a set of assurances during a migration crisis that is set against civil war in Syria, and insurgency in Syria and Iraq is now at the very heart of Europe’s greatest migrant crisis since the Second World War.