Europa Europa: The New Normal?
Aug 3, 2020 | Douglas Davis
Is the European Union, well-known for its ongoing hostility to Israel, about to make a seismic shift? A clutch of leading European states – though not including Germany – has called for the toughest possible response if Israel declares sovereignty over parts of the West Bank under the Trump Administration peace plan.
There are many reasons for such displays of hostility, not least Europe’s longstanding perception that its real interests lie not with Israel, but with the Arab world in general and the Palestinian cause in particular. Add to that Europe’s antipathy to faith, flag and family – prized values in Israel – its enduring antisemitism, and its inability to deal with the Holocaust and you go some way to understanding Europe’s hostility towards the Jewish state.
Whatever punishment Europe might impose if Israel goes ahead with so-called annexation is a matter of conjecture, ranging from symbolic diplomatic rhetoric to hard-knuckle sanctions regimes. Times change. These days it would be hard for the EU to inflict damage on Israel without hurting itself.
There are several factors which are tending to temper the traditional European antagonism towards Israel: firstly, Europe is finding itself deeply engaged in Israeli commercial opportunities; secondly, it is hungry for the military high-tech that is pouring out of Israeli start-ups and; thirdly, it is grateful for Israel’s valuable intelligence contributions to European security.
What has radically complicated the picture for Europe is that some of the most important Arab states on the European check-list, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, are increasingly irritated by the Palestinians and increasingly open about their relations with Israel. France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg – the advocates of tough anti-Israel action – may have to look elsewhere for a bone on which they can collectively gnaw with a degree of general satisfaction.
They may be encouraged to rethink their sterile old allegiances in the Middle East by four former communist states – the Visegrád Four – which joined the European Union in 2004. The Visegrád Four – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – are well disposed towards Israel.
The Visegrád Four are not, to be sure, free of antisemitism or Holocaust guilt, but they are drawn to Israel because, after decades of communist domination, they are determined to follow Israel’s example. They are determined to assert their national uniqueness and express their long-suppressed identity, even when this is opposed by the older EU states, which believe national identities should be diluted by regional organisations like the EU or, better still, international organisations like the UN.
Meanwhile, there are ample signs of a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states, which cannot have gone unnoticed in Europe. In June, for example, the first commercial aircraft from the United Arab Emirates landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport carrying COVID-19 supplies for the Palestinian Authority. The PA rejected the precious aid cargo because it wanted to avoid the impression of normalisation between Israel and the UAE.
In fact, contacts between Israel and the Gulf states have been booming over the past five years. There have been top-level exchanges – political, security, economic and social – with Oman, Dubai, Bahrain and, of course, Saudi Arabia.
Trade between Israel and the Gulf states is now estimated at about US$1 billion a year.
One Israeli-owned company, AGT International, has reportedly concluded an $800 million deal with the UAE for border surveillance equipment. And much more is reportedly happening out of sight in the intelligence and security spheres.
For all that, the Gulf states are not on the brink of full normalisation with Israel. The Arab world is unable to decouple itself from the fraying Palestinian cause without risking the ire of the street; nor is it able to free its population from its own frequently antisemitic views towards Israel.
But something has changed.
The most important is the rise of the Shi’ite states, led by nuclear-hungry Iran and supported by a cast that includes Iraq, Syria, the Houthi in Yemen and the Hezbollah elements in Lebanon. The Shi’ite arc poses an existential threat not only to Israel, but also to the Arab Sunni world, led by Egypt and the Gulf states.
This coincidence of threats and interests has thrown together some key Gulf Arab states – along with Egypt and Jordan – and Israel into a security alliance. And the alliance appears set to endure.
From Israel’s perspective, it is important beyond the obvious strategic advantages. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s openness to the Arab world is part of his broader campaign to project Israel’s political profile achieved through historic visits into Latin America, Asia, South Asia and Africa. Israel now has more diplomatic recognition in the international community than at any time since it achieved independence.
Can the European Union afford to cling to its clapped-out rhetoric and ignore the changed diplomatic map of the Middle East, led by Israel’s manifest vitality and success?