Thinking Aloud: “Israel and the EU: Perceptions in a Complex Relationship”

Apr. 13, 2015 by Darius

Last week, I saw Professor Sharon Pardo, an Israeli political scientist, talk about “Israel and the EU: Perceptions in a Complex Relationship.”  Pardo’s talk detailed Israel’s close yet often combative relationship with the European Union.

The relationship between Israel and the EU goes all the way back to the EU’s origin.  In 1957, Israel explored pursuing full membership in the fledgling European Economic Community.  In 1959, Israel was the fourth country in the world to establish full diplomatic relations with the EEC.  The relationship has continued: as of 2014, the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner, accounting for 33% of imports and 27% of exports.  Israel is also a full member of the European Union in the sectors of culture and research and development, and the EU contributes more funding for Israeli research than any other source.  However, according to Pardo, political relations between the EU and Israel have lagged far behind economic relations.

Pardo identified three broad concepts in Israeli perceptions of the European Union.

The first perception among Israelis is that Israel could and should join the European Union in the foreseeable future.  Polls conducted in 2009 and 2013 found that 69% of Israelis said that Israel should join the EU, while a poll in 2011 found that 81% of Israelis thought that Israel should join.  Moreover, there already exist major links between Israelis and the EU.  Pardo said that 42% of Israeli Jews are eligible for EU citizenship because of their European ancestry (the plurality of whom are Polish) and that 9% of Israelis are currently holding dual Israel-EU citizenship.  According to Pardo, seeking a second citizenship has become a “national sport” in Israel.  Israelis see holding multiple passports as both a status symbol and “an umbrella for a rainy day.”

The Israeli people’s desire to join the EU has been reflected by Israel’s leaders, too.  In 2010, then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman explicitly said that he supported Israel joining the EU.  In the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made similar comments.  Some European leaders, including the prime minister of Lithuania and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi have greeted the idea of Israel joining the EU with enthusiasm.

However, Pardo felt that Israel’s accession to the EU reflects wishful thinking.  He said that Israel and the EU define themselves in fundamentally incompatible ways.  Israel’s vision of itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people is at odds with the European idea of openly traveled space with few national distinctions or barriers.

The second major perception Pardo identified is that while Israelis want to join the EU, they do not see good political relations with Europe as a necessity for Israel.  In 2013, 64% of Israelis agreed that relations with the EU or any of its member states are far less important than relations with the United States.  Similarly, 69% of Israelis felt they have more in common with Americans than with Europeans.  Fundamentally, the US remains the most popular country in Israel—even President Obama maintains a 60% approval rating in Israel—and Israelis feel that Israel cannot count on the EU on security issues, only the US.

Additionally, when the EU criticizes Israel for actions such as settlement building, the Israeli nationalist right in particular becomes very defensive and critical of the EU in return.  Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Naftali Bennett have all made sharply anti-EU comments in response to criticism.  Pardo even went so far as to describe the current political relationship between Israel and the EU as the “worst ever.”

According to Pardo, the third Israeli perception of the EU is that anti-Israel sentiments are deeply rooted in EU countries and the EU itself, to the point of being detrimental to Israeli security.  As many as 83% of Israelis consider the EU to be an anti-Semitic entity, as well as more than 50% of Israelis who consider the EU to be Islamophobic.  Fears of anti-Israeli sentiments come to the fore whenever the EU criticizes Israel, for example on settlements.  Such accusations are quickly met by right-wing Israeli leaders with counter-accusations of anti-Semitism and invocations of the Nazis.  Pardo said the Israeli right sees the Israeli left complicit in the plots of the EU against Israel.

For their part, EU leaders agree that anti-Semitism is a problem in Europe.  One survey found that 45% of all Britons hold anti-Semitic views.  An official EU poll found that fully one in four European Jews fears to identify openly as Jewish and that 26% of European Jews claimed to have been the victim of anti-Semitic harassment within the last 12 months.

So far, though, according to Pardo, the abysmal political atmosphere between Israel and the EU has not impacted burgeoning economic relations.

Pardo’s discussion could have benefited from a breakdown of poll data.  Aggregated numbers rarely tell much of the story.  Which segments of Israeli society in particular are interested in joining the EU, and which groups within Israel aren’t?  (For example, are there differences in opinion between young vs. old, secular vs. ultra-orthodox, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic/Mizrahi, recent Russian arrivals vs. post-WWII European arrivals? And is Israel’s Arab minority for or against the idea?)  What do Israelis think joining the EU would mean for Israel?  For example, it’s hard to see Israel as part of the Schengen Zone of open borders or adopting the Euro as a currency.  It was an interesting talk, but it left many questions unanswered.

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