August 10, 2015 - Europe and Israel: between shared interests and the threat of sanctions



This week, Alpher discusses the European Union and Israel's shared issues and interests that mitigate against tensions on Israel regarding the settlements and the peace process including energy, illegal immigration, and intelligence; how European Jewish immigration to Israel affects Israeli-European ties; where the Greek financial crisis fits in; and what happens if EU economic sanctions against Israel because of the Palestinian issue grow stronger and even develop into political and cultural sanctions; where this leaves the European-Israeli relationship and what Israel should do about it.

Q. European Union pressures on Israel regarding the settlements and the peace process are well known and undoubtedly could get tougher. But are there any shared issues and interests that mitigate against these tensions?

A. Indeed there are. They range from energy to illegal Arab and African immigration. And they touch on European Jewish immigration to Israel, the Greek financial crisis and intelligence cooperation. These shared issue areas link up with extensive economic, scientific and security ties. Then too, some of the EU’s 28 member states pay little more than lip service to EU policy on the Palestinian question and some (e.g., Germany, Austria, Poland) have overriding historical ties with Israel that have evolved from the legacy of the Holocaust. All this tends to explain why, despite everything, Israeli-European commerce and cooperation remain very lively.


Q. Let’s start the discussion of shared issues with energy.

A. Israel’s major natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean are already being linked to Cyprus’s energy infrastructure and could be linked to that of Greece. Europe is hungry for natural gas and unhappy to be dependent on Russia. The main problem is transporting the gas via sea-floor pipeline from Israel’s wells to Europe, in view of the depth of the Mediterranean between Cyprus and Greece.

Here Turkey could enter the picture, but in complicated ways. On the one hand, Turkey challenges Cyprus’s self-proclaimed EEZ (exclusive economic zone, where Cypriot off-shore gas deposits lie) because the EEZ ignores the status of the Republic of Northern Cyprus, which only Ankara recognizes. Turkish-Israeli relations are also tense due to the pro-Islamist policies of President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, and Turkish-Greek relations historically experience periodic flare-ups over territorial waters despite the two countries’ NATO membership. So without an improvement in everyone’s relations with Turkey, an Israel-EU energy link will not easily flower.

On the other hand, Turkey itself is undoubtedly the best potential customer for both Israeli and Cypriot gas. Turkey is energy-hungry, has few resources of its own, and has a huge gas transport infrastructure linking Asia to Europe. The bottom line is that, even though Israel is a half-hour plane ride from EU-member Cyprus, problematic semi-Islamist Turkey is liable to be the key to vastly enhanced EU-Israel energy ties.

Meanwhile, shared concerns over Turkey’s aggressive policies and the strategic cooperation necessary for countering them were on the agenda for a Netanyahu visit to Cyprus on July 28--his first trip abroad since his March reelection. Indeed, fear of Turkey is one reason why Israel can count on close strategic relations with all of Turkey’s European neighbors: Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.


Q. What interests and strategies do Europe and Israel share with regard to illegal immigration?

A. Both want to stop it, and both are taking increasingly drastic measures. Israel built a border fence with Egypt to stop the influx of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees and job-seekers. Europe has anti-migrant fences sheltering Greece, Spain, Bulgaria and Hungary, with more going up and Israeli border surveillance know-how readily available. Israel increasingly intercepts, incarcerates and expels African refugees and job-seekers; so do Italy and France. The means employed to repel illegal migrants are becoming nastier as the numbers grow. The difficulties in distinguishing genuine asylum-seekers from poor migrants looking for a better life are shared by both Israel and the EU.

Israel has largely succeeded by erecting fences (now one is going up on the southern border with Jordan), in stopping the flow from Sudan and the Horn of Africa and is now trying--by bribing, jailing and expelling in an increasingly ugly manner--to reduce the existing reservoir of migrants who have turned entire south Tel Aviv neighborhoods into Little Africa. Only a few dozen have entered Israel this year, with thousands deported.

The Europeans, spearheaded by Italy--which is rendered by geography the vanguard of African refugee absorption--are now turning to patrolling North African waters and clashing with local navies, rebels and smuggling gangs off the Libyan coast in order to head off the rickety migrant boats before they get far from African shores. During the first half of 2015, 137,000 Africans tried to cross the Mediterranean, with several thousand drowning en route.

This is all part of a huge global problem between “north” (which in this case can even be, say, Saudi Arabia vis-a-vis Yemen) and “south” that has been acutely exacerbated by chaos and civil wars in the Arab Middle East and in parts of Africa. Huge numbers of frightened and miserable people are seeking shelter and safety. The countries they try to enter at almost any cost are now themselves frightened and protective. Israel and Europe are in the same virtual boat. This situation will only get worse.


Q. How does European Jewish immigration to Israel affect Israeli-European ties?

A. Paradoxically, there could be a substantive positive effect on ties only if aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) from Britain, France and other European countries increases substantially. And that apparently will happen only if Jews in western Europe perceive a genuine threat on the part of militant Islamists embedded in European society. So far, instances of Islamist terrorism in France, the UK and elsewhere have upped the annual aliyah figures to barely a few thousand from each of several western European countries.

And if more come? Then the effect on Israeli-European relations could begin to approximate the effect of the past 25 years’ Russian-speaking aliyah on Israel’s relations with Russia and Ukraine: closer family and economic ties and the potential for closer political ties. Of course, if apocalyptic predictions come true and European countries are increasingly Islamized in a political sense, the ramifications for European-Israeli ties could be catastrophic.


Q. Where does the Greek financial crisis fit in?

A. First and foremost, it makes the European Union look bad. Would an EU offer to embrace both Israel and a Palestinian state as a reward for solving the conflict be as attractive today as it once was? Can the euro aspire to compete with the almighty American dollar as an attractive international currency for Israel? Indeed, even the prospect of Greece and Cyprus (the latter still recovering from its own Athens-linked financial crisis) as energy partners for Israel is not as attractive a package as it once was.


Q. Last among the shared issues, intelligence.

A. As with US-Israeli relations, Israel is able to offer the West fairly unique resources and analytical capabilities regarding militant Islam, non-conventional weapons development in the region, and the dynamic of Arab state collapse. No matter how bad the situation becomes in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere--and as matters stand it can only get worse--at some level this very constructive relationship will survive.


Q. All well and good. But suppose EU economic sanctions against Israel because of the Palestinian issue grow stronger and even develop into political and cultural sanctions? Where does this leave the European-Israeli relationship and what does Israel do about it?

A. Europe is Israel’s biggest trading partner; the US is second. Europe threatens sanctions, whereas the US constantly reassures Israel that it will not--even as Washington quietly encourages some European sanctions as a means of pressuring Israel regarding the Palestinian issue. Obviously, the best way to prevent the sanctions (and the best step for Israeli itself) is to adopt pro-active policies that advance a two-state solution. But since the Netanyahu government is not about to do this, and considering that Israeli public opinion is currently not a major source of pressure on the government on this issue, the way the government compensates the Israeli economy for European sanctions is potentially (and sadly) of interest.

Suppose EU sanctions that are currently being imposed or discussed expand beyond settlement products and really begin to bite. And suppose, as is likely, that diplomacy and alternative channels of persuasion (e.g., intelligence contacts, energy exports, ubiquitous hi-tech links) fail to stanch the economic hemorrhaging caused by sanctions. A succession of Netanyahu governments has tried in recent years to ready an alternative system of economic-strategic ties in the form of rapidly expanding commercial and strategic relations with Russia, China and India. While all three countries may pay lip-service to the Palestinian issue, none threatens sanctions. And all encounter the threat of extremist Islam and look to Israel in this connection for intelligence and advice.

At the end of the day, none of these alternative trading partners can compensate for the volume of Israel’s trade with Europe. And they certainly cannot replace Israel’s historical and cultural ties to Europe--its European “identity”. So if European sanctions get significantly tougher, Israeli society will begin to suffer serious trauma because of the country’s ongoing failure to deal more constructively with the Palestinian issue.