Israel and Europe: Past, Present and Future

Israel has always had a very interesting relationship with Europe. The modern day political concept of “Zionism” was invented in Europe. Many of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers came from Europe with European philosophies, ideas and attitudes. Israel’s socialist underpinnings were transplanted from Europe and some elements still continue today.

With good – or very bad – intentions, Europe can also be credited for the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel. Europe’s anti-Semitism led Theodor Herzl to promote a Jewish State more than 100 years ago. The Nazi attempt to destroy all of European Jewry forced the world to support a Jewish homeland for the survivors after the war. Some European countries, such as Czechoslovakia, helped arm the fledgling state of Israel in 1948. French weapons helped Israel win the 1967 war, and French technical assistance helped Israel develop its nuclear technology, an important deterrent to countries seeking Israel’s destruction.

Ever since the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil boycott imposed on the world, European countries have often turned their backs on Israel or taken strong pro-Arab stands. European countries are now quick to condemn Israel for actions of self-defense, while reluctant to condemn Palestinian terrorism. Symbolically, France immediately provided Yasser Arafat his last shelter. Why this European turn?

Some claim European attitudes to Israel are a holdover from Europe’s anti-Semitic past. The hatred once directed at the Jews in Europe is now directed at the only Jewish state. Others argue that as Europe freed itself of its own colonialist past, it looks with utter distaste at anything it sees as “colonialism,” including Israel’s administration of the West Bank. In addition, Europeans’ need for Arab oil may play a role in their seeking of Arab favor. And some observers of Europe claim that the rapid-growing Arab and Muslim populations in Europe are realigning the domestic politics of European countries. One historian has even termed the emerging phenomenon “Eurabia.”

Whatever the reason, mistrust describes the relationship between Europe and Israel today.

It is surprising to learn that Europe is Israel’s greatest trading partner, with one-third of Israel’s total exports going to Europe and more than half of Israel’s imports coming from there. The European Union’s European Council endorsed granting Israel special economic status in the European Union in December 1994. A free trade zone exists between Israel and the EU so that there are no trade barriers such as tariffs.

Israel has rather grudgingly given Europe a seat at the peace process negotiating table. The European Union is one quarter of ‘The Quartet’ which endorsed the “Road Map to Peace.” President Bush traveled to Europe this week, and in several speeches he acknowledged European concerns for Palestinian interests. “I have asked Secretary Rice to … convey America’s strong support for the Palestinian people as they build a democratic state,” the President stated. “And I appreciate the prominent role that Prime Minister Blair and other European leaders are playing in the cause of peace.”

While the current relationship with Israel and Europe is fraught with suspicion, Israel nevertheless turns to Europe because of the long joint history, the economic ties, the geographic proximity, and precisely because of Europe’s close ties to the Arabs and Iranians. Last month, Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom explained, “Europe can make no greater contribution to bringing peace to this region than bringing the reign of Palestinian terror to an end. It is imperative in this context that the EU also include Hizballah on its list of terrorist organizations. Hizballah is today directly involved in the financing and planning of the majority of Palestinian terror attacks on Israel, while also seeking constantly to inflame our northern border. Israel has deep concerns regarding Iran’s ongoing nuclear weapons program. …We remain convinced that the international pressure on Iran must be stepped-up, in order to ensure the full cessation of Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear capabilities.”

What is the future of relations between Europe and Israel? by James Hoge, Editor, Foreign Affairs

I think the near-term future of Israeli-European relations is very bad. In Europe, a very pronounced anti-Israeli position has taken hold in country after country at the popular level as well as in government. And European governments, through the EU, are the major financial supporters of the PLO-and more and more information is coming out about the misuse of those funds, including Arafat’s private Swiss bank accounts that total over one billion dollars.

On the other side, Israel at this point is deeply suspicious of Europeans trying to play a peace role because they consider them so partisan toward the Palestinian cause. The Israeli position essentially is: “The less seen of Europeans, the better.” And I am afraid that this is going to be the state of the relationship for some time to come and probably won’t really lend itself to mending until there is some sort of resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict-designed by somebody besides Europeans. (Yale Israel Journal)