Israel and the EU

It’s fair to say that friends shouldn’t tell friends to “go to hell” or “go to a thousand hells,” as Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said so untactfully about the European Union in an interview this week. But are the EU and Israel truly friends?

Steinitz’s comment to Ayala Hasson on Radio 103 FM on Wednesday was in response to criticism from Brussels over Israel’s handling of a human rights issues, particularly its desire to kick the local director of Human Rights Watch out of the country and the police arrest and alleged beating of Mossawa director Jafar Farah during a protest last weekend. One could imagine that if it was only about those incidents the response from Jerusalem wouldn’t be so blunt.

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Telling off Europe and accusing it of “cynicism and chutzpah” plays well in many Israeli circles. The Likud base, which Steinitz was likely speaking to, loves to see Israel stand up for itself. And it makes little difference to them whether the subject of abuse is Iran, Turkey, the EU or even leftists here in Israel.

Many here share the sentiment that Israel is unfairly singled out and that Brussels calling out the Jewish state just shows “how vile it is,” as Steinitz said.

It often seems as though the EU institutions, as opposed to the members states where there is a much wider range of attitudes, is obsessed with Israel, and not in a good way. The EU is often the first to condemn Israel for alleged rights violations.

It regularly blasts Israel for construction in the West Bank, opposes Israel (and the US) when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal and supports civil society groups here that are some of the government’s biggest critics.

That said, the EU is also a major ally of Israel. It is a primary trade partner (number one by some counts), it cooperates closely on counter-terrorism, it offers support for Israel’s academia and it is a member of the Mideast Quartet on the Middle East.

What it comes down to is values. The EU was founded on the ideal of breaking down borders and barriers between states and societies. The values of nationalism and exceptionalism are anathema to its very DNA.

Again it is important to note that this is true for the EU establishment, not the individual member states, where we have witnessed a swing to the Right in several central countries.

It just so happens that those are also the values that have been on the rise in Israel over the last few years. As recent elections have shown and demographics suggest, Israeli society is growing more nationalistic and is expected to continue that trend in the coming years, or at the very least in the next elections, whenever they are held.

As in everything that has to do with politics and international relations these days, there is also the “Trump factor” to take into account. Israeli politicians see that the US president and his administration are firmly in Israel’s corner. They may feel that gives them license to speak more boldly than in the past. If under the Obama administration, the US and EU were firmly on the same page on most issues, today the cracks are beginning to show.

Does that mean the two bodies are on a collision course, that they are destined to turn from friends into enemies? Not necessarily.

The good thing about friendships is, if they’re strong enough, they allow us to tell our friends what we dislike about them without it ruining the relationship. There is an understanding that even if we call out our friends, we still have their best interests at heart. A lot depends on the delivery.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been known to criticize the EU too, but when he does it, he focuses on a certain issue or statement and not a broadside, general assault. He understands that while Israel and Europe might not see eye-to-eye today, they still need each other for trade, security cooperation and other diplomatic affairs.

Israeli politicians would be wise to avoid the recently popular brand of “megaphone diplomacy” and focus on a more subdued tactic.

There are smarter ways to tell friends to go to hell.