Under the previous Israeli government, relations with the EU were often strained. Former prime minister Netanyahu and some of the ministers in his government used to accuse the EU of pursuing an anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic policy.
It has left its mark on Israeli public opinion and among ordinary people, where many express the same negative attitude towards the EU as populist and right-wing parties in some EU Member States.
By doing this, they fail to distinguish between the EU and its institutions on the one hand and the Member States on the other. Anti-Semitism is an old phenomenon in Europe, as recurring opinion polls and statistics on hate crimes in the Member States show.
The EU, on the other hand, pursues a proactive policy against all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and hostility to immigrants. The situation would be much worse if there was no supranational institution in the defence of European values, democracy and human rights.
The European Commission, in its role as the guardian of the EU treaties, clearly distances itself from anti-Semitism and commemorates the Holocaust every year. In 2021, the Commission issued a detailed program of action against anti-Semitism and in support of Jewish community life in Europe.
What does this have to do with Israel? The new Israeli coalition government under Naftali Bennett describes itself as a government for change, at least in terms of previous domestic policies. As far as foreign policy is concerned, it wants to at least improve relations with the EU.
There is, of course, a need for good relations with the EU. Israel has since long close economic relations with the EU and its Member States and is cooperating with them in several areas. Two current examples of that collaboration can be mentioned.
In early December, the EU and Israel signed the co-operation agreement for Israel’s participation in Horizon Europe, the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation for the years 2021 – 2027. Israel has been associated with the EU research programs since 1996 with high participation and good results.
Israel was forced to accept, as in the previous budget period, that no research grants will be awarded to institutions and researchers located in occupied territories.
The second example concerns the oil spill in February in the eastern Mediterranean, which polluted a large part of the Israeli shores and led to the worst environmental disaster in memory. It turned out that under the previous government, Israel was completely unprepared for this kind of environmental threats.
According to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), Israel signed an agreement on March 30, giving it access to satellite images from EMSA’s warning system (CleanSeaNet) for the detection of oil spills in the Mediterranean. The new Israeli government has decided that it will provide more resources to the responsible environmental authorities.
All this is good and well, and the examples of promising EU-Israeli cooperation can be multiplied. But in the political sphere, there has hardly been any progress since the new government took office.
The EU hardly understands why the new Israeli government is not taking any political initiatives to break the deadlock in the peace process with the Palestinians through, for example, confidence-building measures. In that respect, unfortunately, the new government continues the policy of the previous government.
The new government blames its inaction on the divergent opinions among the parties in the coalition over which policy to pursue. It has therefore been agreed to focus on domestic policies and not risk any new elections.
From the outset, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s line has been that political negotiations with the Palestinians are not relevant at present. In his first speech to the UN General Assembly in September, he did not even mention the conflict with the Palestinians and claimed that the Israelis do not wake up in the morning thinking about the conflict.
It may be true but cannot hide that both Bennett himself and even more so some of his extreme party members adhere to a nationalist ideology. Some of them feel bound by promises made to their electorate to promote a settlement policy.
The problem is that it is not possible to freeze the status quo in time. Even if no formal annexation decisions are made, the occupation becomes more permanent by time and makes a future two-state solution more difficult. It may already be too late for such a solution if one is to believe the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua.
Violence is perpetrated by both sides, but what is worrying is the increase in violence perpetrated by an extreme minority of settlers, usually from the illegal outposts that should have been dismantled since long. With the support of fanatical rabbis and the tacit consent of the ideological settler majority, they fuel a vicious circle of violence.
The government and the courts tend to smooth over their violence and illegal acts. So far, they have not been prosecuted sufficiently forcefully by the authorities.
The situation in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem is deteriorating and there is a big risk that the situation might escalate as it did last Spring and spiral out of control. How long can this continue until it will exhaust EU’s patience and the close EU-Israeli co-operation risk becoming jeopardized to the detriment of Israel’s best interests?