Is the EU, really, a “challenge” to Israeli diplomacy?

“Some European countries’ conduct is reminiscent of 1938. It’s reminiscent of how Europeans abandoned Czechoslovakia to its fate. Now they are making all kinds of excuses to abandon [us].” This isn’t a quote from a dictator from a far-flung land. This is Israeli Foreign Minister: Avigdor Lieberman.

He continued these bold claims by proclaiming the European Unions’ support for Palestinian as his country’s biggest diplomatic challenge. Just how correct is he?

Lieberman made this claim, amongst other statements that were hardly ‘Pro-EU’, during a meeting of Israel’s European ambassadors on Sunday, January 4th. He further criticised the EU by likening some of their parliamentary meetings to “another chapter in ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’”. Just in case you aren’t familiar with it, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a one-hundred-year-old anti-Semitic novel that outlines a Jewish plan for world domination that was re-published, as if it were true, by the Nazis in order to justify the holocaust. This doesn’t, really, seem like the best way to improve relations with the EU.

And improving these relations is something that there is definitely room for. At least according to Richard Youngs. Youngs, a senior associate with Carnegie Europe, says that EU-Israeli relations have “reached a new low” in the past 12 months. This degradation in relations can be charted by a series of decisions made by the international community, which culminated in the European Parliament recognising the Palestinian state last month.

Recognition of Palestine (Dark Blue). Non-binding Recognition (Blue)
Recognition of Palestine (Dark Blue). Non-binding Recognition (Blue). Other EU States (Light Blue)

As this recognition is only on a European Parliament level, not all member states have officially acknowledged the state of Palestine. With, only, 9 out of the 28 national governments choosing to do so and Sweden being the only one to take this step as a current member of the EU.The other 8 recognised Palestine prior to joining the EU.  Recognising the Palestinian state is often perceived as a clear step from governments but there is a general consensus that “recognition” is nothing more than a symbolic act.

In the view of Josef Janning, a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office, this recognition “doesn’t have any real effect as it does not change things on the ground or influence the Israeli government”.

This is not a unique criticism either. Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, believes that this recognition may even be detrimental to those who align with Palestine. As it will leave them in a position where they have to maintain a policy that is consistent with their declarations, at times this can be legal and other times; political”. Although these ramifications will be unlikely to harm Israel, either way.

What can be done?

If, simply, recognising the existence of a Palestinian state doesn’t influence the Israeli government it seems the EU must take more divisive steps in order to “challenge diplomacy’ like Lieberman claims they will. The issue with taking these, more divisive steps is the lack of a coherent European voice on the matter. With some member states, most notably Sweden, taking pro-Palestinian steps and others, such as Germany, still looking to allow Israel to make their own decisions it is difficult for the Union to act with one voice. Janning describes that any German recognition as highly unlikely, saying that Germany has decided to not desert Israel in the hope that their support will help Israel stay at the negotiating table”.

Whilst Germany continue on their, so-called, “Israel-first” policy, it seems unlikely that the EU can speak coherently, although it’s not impossible. Nick Witney, a colleague of Janning’s at the ECFR, believes that when the EU do speak together it has a much larger impact due to this usual lack of a “single voice”: “The flip side of this [the lack of coherency] is that when the EU does manage to speak unequivocally, it gives that voice all the more emphasis and impact”

This was shown by the Israeli reaction to the Horizon 2020 project. As the Israelis looked to take part in the EU’s flagship research & innovation program, and thus receive over €600m in funding, the EU made it clear that the money could not be used to fund projects in what it called “the occupied territories”. This initially caused Israel to refuse to sign but after talks in June, the Israeli government ‘agreed to disagree’ with the EU’s caveats and move on with the program. Although this didn’t make a concrete difference, it did show that the EU could act in a coherent manner that wasn’t beneficial to Israel.

This has since been seen as an example of how a strong EU can have an influence on the region’s politics and, at least in the Lieberman’s view, “challenge” Israeli diplomacy. Although, according to an anonymous EU diplomat, any progressive steps made by the EU are being “obliterated” by the current Israeli government.

In search of a voice

Witney believes that this “single voice” is unlikely to reappear any time soon and that, in reality, “the EU cannot force Israel”. Only the Israeli public can influence the government. According to him influencing the “public consciousness” is the only way to getting a “peaceful settlement to the conflict”.

Youngs agrees that any single European position is very unlikely, saying that the debate within the EU on the UN’s 2012 recognition of Palestinian was a perfect example of the disparities amongst member states. The debate left European members, in his words, “all over the place”. Without the ability to generate a “single voice”, it seems that the EU can never, truly, bring about large changes to the conflict although it isn’t even clear if that would be enough.

Imagine a world for a second, where all 28-member states come together and agree on a package to sanction Israel. Tough we know. But even in this, imaginary, world Youngs is not sure the EU voice would be strong enough, without their cousins across the Atlantic, to mount a ‘challenge’ to Israel’s diplomacy. According to Youngs, getting America to take a strong standpoint against the occupation would be a “game-changer” but this seems very far away at the minute. In Witney’s opinion, America “delivering” Israeli co-operation will never happen due to Israel having “complete control of the U.S. congress”.

If the EU cannot come together and find its voice, something, which almost everyone admits is an impossible dream, it is hard to see what Lieberman has to worry about. Combine the current Palestinian division with American apathy and you have three factors that all require a massive shift in attitude to, truly, ‘challenge’ the Israeli diplomacy. Weighing up these options and an American mood, and government change, seems more likely than a sudden burst of cooperation between the 28 member states.

Maybe Lieberman should be directing his concerned gaze a bit further from Brussels and, closer, to Capitol Hill.

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