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How Europe Became Pro-Israel

The most recent fighting with Palestinians has revealed a radical change in European foreign policy that’s been years in the making.

By , the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini shake hands.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini shake hands during a press conference at the European Council in Brussels on Dec. 11, 2017. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made the unusual decision to fly the Israeli flag on official buildings in solidarity with the country facing Hamas rocket attacks on its cities. “I condemn, with the utmost firmness, the attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip,” said the conservative chancellor. “Israel has the right to defend itself against these attacks.” Kurz is known to have court Israel in the last few years, most likely to deflect criticism for his alliance with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria. On Wednesday, the European Council agreed (minus Hungary) on a resolution calling for a cease-fire, but the Austrian chancellor isn’t an outlier among European leaders in expressing support for Israel.

Since the start of this new round of violence between Israel and Hamas, European leaders have been vocal in expressing their support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called Hamas rockets “terrorist attacks,” and the German political class on the left and right, in the midst of a parliamentary campaign, has echoed her support for Israel. Green candidate and current poll leader Annalena Baerbock has called Israeli security “the national interest of the modern German state.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged these statements of support, thanking U.S. President Joe Biden but also European leaders, specifically “the president of France, the British prime minister, the chancellor of Austria, the chancellor of Germany, and others.” Netanyahu added: “They have upheld our natural and self-evident right to defend ourselves, to act in self-defense against these terrorists who both attack civilians and hide behind civilians.”

This was not always the case. EU relations with Israel were famously cold for decades. During the Second Intifada, the EU took pains to counterbalance the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of the Sharon government. Public opinion was hostile. In a 2003 poll that had provoked much controversy, 59 percent of Europeans named Israel the gravest threat to world peace. Protests and calls for boycotts were common. However, the mood is changing.

Last week, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made the unusual decision to fly the Israeli flag on official buildings in solidarity with the country facing Hamas rocket attacks on its cities. “I condemn, with the utmost firmness, the attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip,” said the conservative chancellor. “Israel has the right to defend itself against these attacks.” Kurz is known to have court Israel in the last few years, most likely to deflect criticism for his alliance with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria. On Wednesday, the European Council agreed (minus Hungary) on a resolution calling for a cease-fire, but the Austrian chancellor isn’t an outlier among European leaders in expressing support for Israel.

Since the start of this new round of violence between Israel and Hamas, European leaders have been vocal in expressing their support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called Hamas rockets “terrorist attacks,” and the German political class on the left and right, in the midst of a parliamentary campaign, has echoed her support for Israel. Green candidate and current poll leader Annalena Baerbock has called Israeli security “the national interest of the modern German state.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged these statements of support, thanking U.S. President Joe Biden but also European leaders, specifically “the president of France, the British prime minister, the chancellor of Austria, the chancellor of Germany, and others.” Netanyahu added: “They have upheld our natural and self-evident right to defend ourselves, to act in self-defense against these terrorists who both attack civilians and hide behind civilians.”

This was not always the case. EU relations with Israel were famously cold for decades. During the Second Intifada, the EU took pains to counterbalance the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of the Sharon government. Public opinion was hostile. In a 2003 poll that had provoked much controversy, 59 percent of Europeans named Israel the gravest threat to world peace. Protests and calls for boycotts were common. However, the mood is changing.

In recent years, Netanyahu has actively cultivated relationships with Europe’s leaders, especially on the illiberal side, seeing them as natural allies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was warmly received in Jerusalem in 2018, a visit that was criticized domestically due to the far-right strongman’s history of flirting with antisemitic and Holocaust revisionist tropes. Other European populist leaders like then-Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini visited Israel in 2018. Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell condemned what he viewed as Netanyahu’s desire to see himself “as an integral part of this anti-liberal bloc.” But Europe’s friendlier tone toward Israel can’t be solely explained by Netanyahu’s closer relationship with a few illiberal European leaders like Orban. All of Europe is moving.

A mix of economic, geopolitical, and European domestic reasons can explain this progressive, undeniable shift.

Europeans have not changed their official position on the conflict and still uphold the resumption of the peace process, the end of occupation, and a two-state solution under the 1967 borders as the way forward. The EU is the most significant aid provider to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the Palestinian National Authority. Only the Czech Republic and Hungary have followed through on the Trump administration’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel while nine European countries recognize Palestine as a state. But the Palestinian question has been deprioritized in the overall relationship.

This is first because of the Middle East’s changing nature. Despite the recent upsurge in violence, it’s rare today to find a European diplomat who would claim the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the key to unlocking all of the region’s tensions and conflicts, a view held almost religiously in European chancelleries in the 2000s. The 2010 Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war with its consequences in Europe (including terror attacks and increased migration), and the Iranian nuclear file have all shifted priorities in the Middle East.

Despite a lukewarm public reception, many European diplomats privately acknowledge the Abraham Accords have added another nail in the coffin of Europe’s focus on Israel-Palestine. After the accords last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was invited to attend the European Council in Berlin, the first time such an honor was extended to an Israeli diplomat. Energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean have always spurred deep exploitation cooperation among Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt—against the claims of neighboring Turkey. In April, Athens and Jerusalem announced a record $1.65 billion defense contract, following a meeting between foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel.

At the same time, Israel’s economic and tech performances have started to attract European interest. Israel was the first non-European country associated with a string of EU scientific bodies like the Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development and the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. It’s also a part of the EU’s global navigation system Galileo. Shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election, his economy and digital affairs ministers visited Tel Aviv, Israel’s innovation festival, months before the foreign minister visited the country. In 2011, France announced the purchase of $500 million worth of Heron drones, breaking with a 44-year arms embargo started by then-French President Charles de Gaulle after the 1967 Six-Day War. In 2018, Germany followed through after the Bundestag agreed to lease Israeli drones for nine years, a $1.2 billion contract hailed by Netanyahu as “contributing to European security.” In 2020, Airbus and two Israeli air and space companies were mandated by the EU to fly drones over the Mediterranean Sea to monitor migrant smuggler ships.

But the main change has come from European societies themselves and is symbolic of something deeper. Facing terror attacks in the last few years, Europeans have increasingly associated Israel as a country facing similar challenges, the canary in the coalmine for European democracies. Aurore Bergé, a French parliament spokesperson for the La République En Marche! party and head of the France-Israel friendship group, said: “We have a common front with Israel: the struggle against Islamist terrorism. More than ever, it’s what brings us closer and what explains the diplomatic shift in Europe.”

As Atlantic Council senior fellow Damir Marusic put it in a brilliant recent essay, “Between Brussels and Jerusalem,” the two capitals have embodied competing understandings for the West’s sense of history and meaning of World War II and the Holocaust. For the former, the disasters of World War II called for cooperation, technocratic governance transcending the ills of the nation-state. For Jerusalem, the tragic fate of Jews in Europe urged them to overcome their historic powerlessness and build a strong nation supported by borders and a powerful army. As they integrated the continent, Europeans increasingly viewed their successful model as the shape of things to come for the rest of the world. Europe was to “run the 21st century,” according to an influential essay by Mark Leonard. And what better place to apply the European model of reconciliation than in Israel-Palestine?

But things did not turn out this way. Fifteen years ago, it was commonplace for observers to forewarn growing Israeli diplomatic isolation if it failed to find a sustainable and peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue. These predictions did not come to pass. With Europe and the United States, of course, but also with new partnerships in India, Russia, and Africa, Israel has more economic and diplomatic partners than it ever has. Meanwhile, with terror attacks; identity and immigration concerns; mainstream EU politicians lamenting inefficient borders; and center-left parties, such as the French Socialist Party or the German Social Democratic Party, in free fall; Europeans are questioning their model. European leaders regularly now call for a geopolitical EU to “speak the language of power.” Maybe the sense of history is tilting toward Jerusalem, after all?

Benjamin Haddad is the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Le Paradis Perdu: l’Amérique de Trump et la fin des illusions européennes.

Tag: Europe

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