Tomas Sandell, founding director of the grassroots movement, the European Coalition for Israel (EC4I), spoke to a January 23rd Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about strengthening the bond between Israel and Europe. The following is a summary of his comments:
In the last fifty years, the European community's (today's EU, European Union) relations with Israel, as well as the voting patterns at the U.N., have been marked by a clear "pro-Palestinian stance." The European policy was largely shaped post-1973 after the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War. Since that time, the policy has "formalized" into decisions made by the foreign ministers of the EU's twenty-seven member states.
There is a "clear political divide" between the Central and Eastern European countries that lived under totalitarian regimes on the one hand, and the traditional Western democracies on the other, with the former more pro-Israel and the latter more favoring the Palestinian cause. The division extends to political institutions as well, with center- right political parties in the European Parliament tending to support Israel and the progressive left parties, excluding Germany, supporting the Palestinians.
Sandell observed three "contradictions" in the European-Israeli relationship dynamic. The first is that although historically Europe was the center of Jewish life until the advent of World War II, it is also often referred to as the "largest Jewish graveyard in the world." Whereas the Zionist idea was first presented in the European cities of London, Basel, and San Remo, Europe also inflicted the traumas of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and pogroms on the Jews throughout its history, culminating in the Shoah/Holocaust.
The second contradiction is that, while Europe has had a problem for the past two decades with any right-leaning Israeli government, today the EU and Israel "have never been closer" in terms of trade and cooperation, as evidenced by the recently renewed EU-Israel Council agreement. Europe is Israel's largest trading partner, and Israel's technological innovations play an important role in meeting Europe's needs. Less publicized is the intelligence and security cooperation between Israel and Europe, which has played a critical role in thwarting terror attacks in Europe.
Third, the European Commission, which is the Executive arm of the European Union, has been a pioneer in successfully spreading the global acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. The contradiction is that the EU "continues to support antisemitism outside the borders of Europe." This is done through the EU's funding of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is responsible for incitement to hatred through its Palestinian textbooks and the PA's "pay to slay" policy, which pays salaries to convicted Palestinian terrorists.
Israeli government officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have pressed the Europeans about EU-supported activities in the Palestinian territories that are inconsistent with European and universal values. However, the EU is loath to take a tough stance with the Palestinians, fearing it will be accused of imposing "colonialism" on their "protectorate." Nevertheless, as a result of the debate that Sandell's organization has raised in the European Parliament over the EU's funding of Palestinian education and dissemination of Jew hatred-filled textbooks, there is now a freeze on the EU's funding of these activities.
Sandell stressed the importance for Israel to make overtures to populist political parties in Europe who wish to ally with Israel, but whom the Israeli foreign ministry has placed on an official political blacklist because "they do not necessarily tick all the boxes on the scale of intersectionality." Some of these parties have an anti-Jewish past but today are pro-Israel. One of these recently joined the ruling coalition in a Western European country and is supportive of moving its country's embassy to Jerusalem. Sandell believes there are reasons to "reevaluate" where red lines should be drawn.
Another area affecting European-Israeli relations is the war in Ukraine. It is a "double-edged sword" because, for purposes of greater energy security, Europe is seeking stable trading partner alternatives to Russia, and Israel's extensive natural gas reserves make it a suitable trading partner for energy. But on the other hand, some European countries would like Israel to take a clearer stand in favor of Ukraine. Israel's relations with Poland, a key EU nation that has assumed a great deal of responsibility for the Ukrainians during the war, have "been falling apart over the last few years." Consequently, Sandell hopes that Israel's foreign ministry will "prioritize" relations with Poland.
EC4I's twentieth anniversary, to be celebrated this March, will emphasize the success of the Abraham Accords, a "real game changer." Sandell has been in discussions with EU officials to break the deadlock with those who have been slow to join the process of normalization between Israel and the Arab states. He reported that there has been positive movement with one of the EU commissioners who has released monies to promote the accords. "Next month there will be the first official Abraham Accords ... network launched in [the] European Parliament headed by the president of the European Parliament. So Europe is slowly but surely waking up to this."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.