23.05.2021 – 09:29
Last week, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took the unusual decision to wave the Israeli flag at official buildings in solidarity with the country that is facing Hamas rocket attacks on its cities. “I strongly condemn the attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip,” said the Conservative chancellor. “Israel has a right to defend itself against these attacks.”
Kurz is known to have judged Israel in recent years, most likely avoiding criticism of his alliance with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.
On Wednesday, the European Council agreed on a resolution calling for a ceasefire, but the Austrian chancellor is not an advantage among European leaders in expressing support for Israel.
Since the beginning of this new round of violence between Israel and Hamas, European leaders have been vocal in expressing their support for Israel’s right to protect 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 its 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 accepted these statements of support, thanking US President Joe Biden but also European leaders, namely “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 have been quite cold for decades.
During the Second Intifada, the EU sought to counterbalance the embrace of the Sharon administration’s George W. Bush administration. Public opinion was hostile. In a 2003 poll that had provoked much controversy, 59 percent of Europeans called Israel the biggest threat to world peace. Protests and calls for a boycott were common. However, the mood is changing.
In recent years, Netanyahu has actively cultivated relations with European leaders, especially on the illiberal side, seeing them as natural allies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was received in Jerusalem in 2018, a visit that was criticized in the country because of the history of the powerful man of the far right to flirt with anti-Semitic troops and the revisionist Holocaust.
Other European populist leaders, such as then-Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, visited Israel in 2018. Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell condemned what he saw as Netanyahu’s desire to see himself “as an integral part of this anti-liberal bloc.”
But Europe’s friendlier tone towards Israel cannot be explained by Netanyahu’s close relationship with some illiberal European leaders like Orban. All of Europe is moving.
A mix of domestic economic, geopolitical and European reasons can explain this progressive, undeniable shift.
The Europeans have not changed their official position on the conflict and still support the resumption of the peace process, the end of the occupation and a two-state solution below the 1967 borders as the way forward.
The EU is the most important provider of assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the Palestinian National Authority. Only the Czech Republic and Hungary have followed 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 issue has been devalued in general relations.
This is the first due to the changing nature of the Middle East. Despite the recent escalation of violence, it is rare today to find a European diplomat who would claim that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the key to unblocking all tensions and conflicts in the region, a view held almost in Europe in the 2000s.
The 2010 Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war with its aftermath in Europe (including terrorist attacks and increasing migration), and the Iranian nuclear file have shifted all priorities in the Middle East.
Despite a lukewarm public reception, many European diplomats privately acknowledge that the Abrahamic Agreements have added a nail in the coffin of Europe’s focus on the Israel-Palestine relationship. Following the agreements last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was invited to attend the European Council in Berlin, the first time such an honor was given to an Israeli diplomat.
Energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean have always fueled deep exploitation cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, against claims by neighboring Turkey. In April, Athens and Jerusalem announced a record $ 1.65 billion defense contract, following a meeting between the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
At the same time, Israel’s economic and technological performance has begun to attract European interest. Israel was the first non-European country associated with a range of EU scientific bodies such as the Framework Programs for Research and Technological Development and the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. It is also part of the EU’s Galileo global navigation system.
Shortly after the election of French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, his ministers of economy and digital affairs visited Tel Aviv, Israel’s innovation festival, months before the foreign minister visited the country.
In 2011, France announced the $ 500 million purchase of Heron drones, breaking a 44-year arms embargo initiated by then-French President Charles de Gaulle after the 1967 Six-Day War. In 2018, Germany was succeeded 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 traffic vessels.
But the main change has come from European societies themselves and is a symbol of something deeper. In the face of terrorist attacks in recent years, Europeans have increasingly linked Israel as a country facing similar challenges, for European democracies.
Aurore Bergé, a spokeswoman for the French parliament for La République En Marche! and the head of the France-Israel friendship group, said: “We have a common front with Israel: the fight against Islamic terrorism.
“More than ever, it is what brings us closer and what explains the diplomatic relocation to Europe.”
As old Atlantic Council colleague Damir Marusic put it in an excellent recent essay, “Between Brussels and Jerusalem,” the two capitals have embodied competing understandings of Western history and the meaning of World War II, and Holocaust. For the former, the catastrophes of World War II required cooperation, technocratic governance overcoming the ills of the nation state.
For Jerusalem, the tragic fate of the Jews in Europe prompted them to overcome their historical powerlessness and build a strong nation backed by borders and a powerful army. As they integrated the continent, Europeans increasingly viewed their successful model as the form of things to come for the rest of the world.
Europe was to “lead the 21st century,” according to an influential essay by Mark Leonard. And what country would be better off implementing the European model of reconciliation than Israel-Palestine?
But things did not turn out that way. Fifteen years ago, it was common for observers to warn of Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation if it failed to find a lasting and peaceful solution to the Palestinian question. These predictions did not happen.
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 ever before.
Meanwhile, with terrorist attacks; identity and immigration concerns; Ordinary EU politicians are complaining about inefficient borders.
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 leaning towards Jerusalem?
Translated and adapted by Foreign Policy / FH, Konica.al