Back from an extended weekend in Lithuania (with a carefully leaked or released photo in sneakers and polo shirt, sitting on a sidewalk rung like any other Israeli vacationer), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can look forward to the upcoming High holidays with a sigh of relaxation. He may have just outmaneuvered The European Union.
Europe is one of Israel’s largest trade partners, and the European Union has entered into many economic agreements with Israel. The very Israeli Start-Up nation benefits from various agreements such as Horizon 2020. Europe is a significant political factor and the European Union is active within the Quartet, together with the United States, Russia and the United Nations.
It is therefore frustrating for Israeli policy-making and diplomatic circles to realize that the EU’s political center in Brussels has adopted critical measures vis-à-vis Israel. For example, the Guidelines of May 2013 that limited cooperation agreements with Israel to the pre-1967 lines. In Israeli eyes, this is tantamount to determining for both Palestinians and Israelis where their future border should pass.
Netanyahu’s summit with the leaders of the Baltic States echoes a similar one he had held with the leaders of the four Visegrád countries last February. It had been widely viewed as an attempt to create a gap between the traditional EU Brussels- orietated countries and the new arrivals from eastern and Central Europe who resent Brussels domineering power. Surely, the new members have a lot on their plate vis-à-vis Brussels anyway, and seeming anti-Israeli positions could fit in.
Given that, any decision or guidelines within the framework of the EU must be adopted by a consensus of the entire twenty-eight (so far) member states, it is indeed a brilliant Israeli move. Should only one small east European country, like the much-maligned Hungary or Holocaust-memory-challenged Poland oppose a new guideline, the whole move can be grounded. The same is true for a new policy regarding the Middle East. Excellent move befitting the great tactician that Benjamin Netanyahu has always been. Chapeau.
One may ask, though, if this is indeed such a brilliant move in the end. As important as the new EU member-states maybe, they hardly match the international impact of the old ones. Their combined GDP for 2017 (according to IMF figures) was a little less than 900 billion US dollars, while the Netherlands and Belgium alone exceeded 1,300 billion dollars for that year, not to mention much larger economies like France’s or Germany’s. From the point of view of Israeli trade balance, Israel’s export to Hungary (for example) in 2014 came to less than one-third of one per cent ( 0.30%) of the total of Israeli exports while Israeli import from Hungary in that year was 0.54% of the total of Israeli imports. In comparison, Israel’s export to Belgium (as an example) amounted to 5.76% of its total exports in 2014, and its imports from that kingdom was 4.27%. The relative weight is quite clear.
However, there really is no need to formulate new consensus-based EU policy or guidelines, as there is already an ample array of available diplomatic and economic tools. So far, many West-European countries who may have supported and accepted EU measures towards Israel, have not translated them into state-issued ordinances. Now they might, frustrated by an evaporating consensus. Thus, they may unwittingly enable a field day for BDS groups. I do not see how Israel’s embassies, with all their devotion but with meager means, could fight off such a trend.
Oh, and by the way, the United States cavalry will not come this time to the rescue from across the ocean, mounting their gallant horses and sounding their pipes. Especially following a potential (though not guaranteed) Democratic victory in the upcoming mid-term elections. Nonetheless, even if the Republicans hold onto both the House and the Senate, Israel may be made to pay the price of the EU-Trump love story.
Beyond the potential diplomatic and economic impairment that may emerge from an Israel-inspired inter-European gap, one could also view Europe as Israel’s cultural and political hinterland. Does Israel really want to be associated with “non-liberal democracies”? The tactical maneuverability of creating a rift between East and West in Europe may be good in the short run, but is it not better to try mending the fences with Israel’s old allies? (And that is not to say that “old Europe” does not bear a chunk of the blame).
After all, in the words of Historian Fania Oz-Sazbereger (in Eretz Acheret, Automn 2004), “Even before Freud and Einstein something very profound occurred between Jewish and European culture. Our books were the building blocks of modern Europe, no less” she wrote, and “the great European literature that was translated for us with love and the greatest care …” may have brought about a “yearning for the imagined Europe of my grandparents, a yearning that some Israelis nay share for a Europe that was once a great hope…”
It remains to be seen whether the tactical success with Central and East European countries will not turn to be a further strategic setback vis-à-vis a continent that we need and that we should stay close with.