I admit that I would love to be a fly on the wall when our prime minister meets EU foreign ministers in Brussels today.
There is no doubt the event will be highly charged, and I suspect Netanyahu will not have an easy time getting his messages across to the Europeans. And what is that message? Primarily that an Iranian presence in Syria as part of long-term arrangements in that miserable, battered country poses a threat not only to Israel’s security but to that of the rest of the democratic world; that US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem is a positive and promising development; and that EU meddling with human rights issues in the West Bank, and its support of and engagement with Israeli human rights organizations, is something the current Israeli government cannot tolerate.
There are many reasons why the relations between Israel and the EU have become charged and uncordial, and why this particular meeting is liable to be especially explosive.
The EU has long expressed its disapproval of Israel’s policy in the West Bank, the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem, which it views as occupied territories to which the Fourth Geneva Convention applies. Within the framework of this policy the EU has published guidelines regarding the marking of Israeli products produced in the “occupied territories” and of Israeli companies that are engaged in business activities in them. This is not a direct call for the boycott of products and companies, but rather more of an irksome recommendation.
About a third of EU members have recognized a Palestinian state; all the former Communist member states recognized Palestine in 1988 and did not cancel their recognition after becoming democracies, and two West European members, Iceland and Sweden, recognized Palestine in 2011 and 2014, respectively. The parliaments of several other EU states voted in favor of recognition of Palestine toward the end of 2014, including the UK and France.
Quite a few EU members financially support Israeli human rights organizations (as they do organizations in other countries that regularly breach the human rights of citizens and non-citizens under their rule) and collaborate with them. Most recently representatives of the EU, headed by the newly selected EU ambassador to Israel, Emanuele Giaufret, participated in a celebration to mark International Human Rights Day with NGO B’Tselem at a photo exhibition titled “Fifty years of occupation,” which presented the images of 50 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, from all walks of life, who were born in 1967 and have lived their whole life under the abnormal reality of the last 50 years.
As to President Trump’s formal recognition last week of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (without defining its boundaries), and his repetition of the promise made by three previous presidents that in future the US embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, neither the EU nor any of its member states is likely to follow suit.
The maximum that can be expected are statements, such as that made by the Czech Republic, recognizing west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and a promise to move embassies to Jerusalem after a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is attained.
In truth, recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should have occurred already in 1948, and the reason why it didn’t – the fact that the 1947 UN partition plan called for the internalization of Jerusalem – was a feeble excuse given the political and military reality at the time.
All of this is viewed with disapproval and disdain by official Israel. Typically, the Foreign Ministry referred to the official EU attendance at the photo exhibition last week “a spit in the face.”
The EU, of course, sees things differently, and most of its members have full sympathy with the EU’s positions, while feeling despair regarding Israel’s reactions. For example, one of the protests that will be greeting Netanyahu upon his arrival in Brussels will be by a group of members of the European Parliament demanding that Israel pay the 1.2 million euros in compensation for its destruction of various construction projects financed by the EU in Area C of the West Bank, which Israel considered to be illegal, including houses for expelled Beduin, structures that served as schools and kindergartens for Beduin children, pipes, water cisterns and electricity generators.
The EU and its members also remember Netanyahu’s embarrassing statement to the premiers of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia last July in Budapest in which he urged them to try to change the EU’s attitude toward Israel. An open microphone he was not aware of recorded him saying, “The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel – that produces technology and every area [sic] – on political conditions. The only one! Nobody does it. It’s crazy... there is no logic here. The EU is undermining its security by undermining Israel... I think Europe has to decide if it wants to live and thrive, or if it wants to shrivel and disappear.”
The backhanded way in which Netanyahu managed to get invited to meet with the EU foreign ministers has also left a bitter taste in quite a few EU mouths. Just like Netanyahu decided to turn up uninvited at the anti-terrorist demonstration in Paris against French president Francois Hollande’s wishes in January 2015 and managed to break through to the front line of the demonstrators, and just like he got himself invited to speak to the US Congress on his rejection of the nuclear understanding with Iran in March 2015 behind president Barack Obama’s back, so now Netanyahu got the Lithuanian foreign minister to invite him to an unofficial breakfast meeting with the EU foreign ministers before their summit that is to take place today, behind the back of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini.
Mogherini was reported to have been incensed by Netanyahu’s audacious move, but finally agreed to the meeting taking place on condition that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas be invited to address the same forum in the near future.
Opposite all this chutzpadik diplomatic activity, the statement made by French president Charles De Gaulle soon after the Six Day War that “the Jews are a people sure of itself and domineering” seems like a polite understatement. It is not surprising that the Europeans are not in a very patient mood as far as Netanyahu is concerned.
What will be interesting to see is whether despite all this Netanyahu still manages to get his messages across, or whether the whole affair will end up as a fiasco. As I stated at the outset: I wish I were a fly on the wall for this meeting. If nothing else, it will be an exquisite piece of theater.