Strategic Europe continues its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by ten countries in Europe’s Southern neighborhood. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of the EU’s approach toward their country, with a ranking on a scale from “irrelevant” to “helpful.” This week, the spotlight is on Israel.
Distance matters. Despite globalization and twenty-first-century communication tools, mental and geographical distance divides societies and shapes the way we see other people, places, and states.
Take the average Israeli perception of the EU. Most Israelis imagine the EU as an anti-Israeli bloc. Israelis not only ignore EU member states’ political and economic conflicts, they also disregard EU countries’ rich social composition and local cultures. Helped by an anti-Semitism that is deeply rooted in European history and still present in a few pockets, Israelis like to argue, EU states seek to wash away their imperial past by accusing Israel of being a brutal colonial occupier. Germany, in the Israeli mind, enjoys the special status of a permanent suspect. Germans are obliged to cultivate their feelings of guilt for the Holocaust and their unconditional support for Israel.
Neither European anti-Semitism nor European regrets about colonial-era war crimes and human rights violations are pure fiction. But through the prism of distance, Israelis give these elements a size and weight far removed from reality. Israelis wrongly confuse anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israeli policies based on lessons Europe learned from its dark past. A common Israeli reaction to recent terrorist attacks by the self-proclaimed Islamic State was that the atrocities would lead EU states to abandon their misguided principles and endorse Israeli methods and norms.
Israel’s distance from European cultural, social, and political centers arouses Jewish-Israeli siege mentalities. Israelis’ immediate experience at home is alienation from and rejection of neighboring societies. And Israelis tend to expand these mentalities to European societies. Israelis consider themselves part of the West but cannot overcome their mental distance from it.
The EU also suffers from distance-based misperceptions, and the union’s approach to Israel can best be described as confused. A popular European perception of Israel is that of a start-up nation, as if the quality of Israeli higher education institutions were not deteriorating below that of leading Western universities.
Gay and lesbian parades in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem create the impression that Israel is a liberal country, even though basic civil rights such as marriage, divorce, and the conversion of Jews are subordinated to Orthodox rabbinical courts. Moreover, Israel denies Jewish religious pluralism. The church—or, in Israel’s case, the Orthodox synagogue—and the state are partners in a relationship that resembles a Catholic marriage.
Israel is known for its democratic institutions. However, the country defines itself not as a liberal or constitutional democracy but as Jewish and democratic, a definition that leaves one wondering whether Israel really is closer to Western democratic models than to Islamic republics.
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The EU’s master misperception is of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Helped by the fake Israeli-Palestinian peace process and international law, the EU perceives Israeli rule over the Palestinians as a military occupation that is supposed to end soon with the conclusion of the peace talks initiated by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. In international law textbooks, occupation is by definition temporary and enforced exclusively by armed forces. It is absurd to stretch the concept of occupation to include rule that has lasted nearly fifty years and that besides a military army also comprises a huge civilian army of more than half a million settlers.
A close look at the methods Israel uses to subordinate the Palestinians reveals a mix of military occupation, settlement, and colonial and apartheid-inspired means. There is no expiration date to this system, nor is there a trustworthy political process that can assure it. Such an examination also shows that one continuous regime effectively covers all areas between Jordan and the Mediterranean, based on the principle of Jewish ethnic superiority. The physical border that existed between Israel and the Palestinian territories before June 1967 turned virtual.
Israel applies differential levels of state supervision, security control, bureaucratic rules, civil rights, and citizen benefits to five Palestinian groups: Israeli Palestinians, who enjoy political and other rights but are systematically discriminated against due to their ethnic origin; Jerusalem Palestinians, who enjoy residency status but no citizenship; Palestinians who reside between the Israeli security barrier and the Green Line in a special security zone; Palestinian Authority subjects in the rest of the West Bank, who enjoy limited autonomy in exchange for acting as Israeli security subcontractors; and Gaza Strip Palestinians, whose territory is effectively occupied by virtue of being surrounded.
This system provides Israel with effective tools to manage the conflict and keep the Palestinians weak and divided. Moreover, it helps Israel claim that the country ended its rule over the Gaza Strip and the most populated West Bank areas, whereas other territories are in a temporary hold only. In particular, Israel does not want the EU to know about the symbiosis that exists between the Israeli state apparatus and the settlers in building this ethnically based regime.
Therefore, the EU wrongly sees the dismantling of the settlements as the key issue to achieving a two-state solution. Rather, the fundamental question is whether illegitimate Israeli methods of governance can be abandoned in favor of practices founded on collective and individual human rights, international law, and Western European norms.
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Based on the assumption that Israel and the EU share values of democracy and human rights and that Israel is operating on the ground to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories, the EU has signed partnership agreements with Israel that have narrowed the distance between the two. But recently, more and more senior EU officials and decisionmakers have come to the conclusion that in fact, the Israeli government’s decision to limit the freedom of operation of human rights NGOs and the policy of de facto annexation of most of the West Bank widen the distance between the EU and Israel.
The EU therefore faces a strategic, political, and moral dilemma. It can distance itself from Israel and let the country continue its present methods. Accordingly, Israel may lose the benefits it enjoys under the EU-Israel Association Agreement in force since 2000. Alternatively, the EU can make that agreement and other benefits conditional on Israel reversing its policies and recommitting to EU norms.
Menachem Klein is a professor in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron.