High-level visit paves the way for deepened EU-Israeli partnership

High-level visit paves the way for deepened EU-Israeli partnership
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, credit: EU

European Commission President von der Leyen visited Israel during two intensive days this week in what was described by the Commission as a mission aiming at taking EU-Israeli relations forward, in particular on energy cooperation.

On Monday and Tuesday, she met with representatives of the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Energy Minister Karin Elharar. A working meeting with Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, took also place. She also visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, where she laid down a wreath.

She had recently met President Herzog in Davos where he had called for a new alliance “to shape not only a new Middle East, but a renewable Middle East. A Middle East that thrives as a global hub of sustainable solutions in food, water and health, and as a source of solar energy to Europe, Asia and Africa.” Von der Leyen said that it was an “important speech, which resonated well beyond our region.”

According to the Commission’s announcement ahead of the visit, she was also supposed to discuss the political situation in the Middle East but the burning issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the region were apparently not high on the agenda this time. It was only two weeks ago that a new war between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza was barely avoided following tension in Jerusalem.

A Commission spokesperson confirmed that EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, who has not yet visited Israel since he took office, did not join von der Leyen on her mission. He is expected to make his own travel arrangements in coordination with his Israeli counterparts.

From Israel, von der Leyen continued to Egypt on Wednesday, where she met Egypt’s authoritarian president El Sisi and issued a joint statement on climate, energy and the green transition. In Cairo, European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson and the Egyptian and Israeli energy ministers signed a trilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the export of natural gas to Europe.

Low profile on the political situation

Von der Leyen managed to squeeze in a visit to Ramallah in the West Bank, where she met the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh, and was welcomed by a military guard. She took the opportunity to announce that the Commission will release economic aid (€214 million) which had been frozen because of a dispute about alleged incitement in Palestinian text books.

EU is the largest donor to the Palestinian authority and the total annual aid by EU and its member states is estimated to €600 million. In her public statement, she mentioned in passing EU’s commitment to the two state-solution but talked mostly of the need of supporting people during the food crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Palestinian Prime Minister might have expected EU support for relaunching the peace process but that is not likely to happen even if the Israeli government survives an acute crisis after having lost its razor-thin majority in the Knesset.

The Bennett government celebrated its first anniversary on Monday. From the very start, the Israeli Prime Minister declared that the fragile coalition government would focus on domestic issues and not resume the political dialogue with the Palestinians risking a break-up of the government.

In her public statement alongside the Israeli Prime Minister, von der Leyen kept a low diplomatic profile but referred to the Abraham Accords as a positive step in the forming of Israeli-Arab relations and expressed hope that it will also lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The visit took largely place under a kind of media blackout on both the Israeli and EU sides. According the Commission’s spokesperson’s service, her tight programme did not allow for any interviews or press conferences. Only one media outlet in Israel, The Times of Israel, was granted an interview by email ahead of her visit.

Honorary doctorate highlight during the visit

While it is too early to assess the results of the talks on deepened EU-Israeli economic and scientific cooperation to address the energy and food crises, the highlight during the visit for the European Commission president was probably the reward of an honorary doctorate degree from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

There she delivered a passionate speech on her personal life and values, the lessons of European history, the Holocaust and her close connections with the state of Israel and the Jewish communities in Europe.  If there was any doubt in Israel about the Commission’s determination to fight antisemitism and fostering Jewish community life in Europe, it was dispelled after her speech.

“As long as I can think, I was convinced of two very simple facts. First, there is no Europe without European Jews,” she said. “Europe and Israel are bound to be friends and allies. Because the history of Europe is the history of the Jewish people. Europe is Simone Veil and Hannah Arendt. Europe is Mahler and Kafka, and Freud. Europe is the values of the Talmud, the Jewish sense of personal responsibility, of justice and of solidarity.”

At the ceremony, she was given a scroll in recognition of her being an exceptional stateswoman, “guiding the European Union towards a promising future by promoting democracy, peace and unity among its members; in acknowledgement of her inspiring leadership, confidently steering the Union through upheavals and storms, including during the current war on the continent.”

It also expressed gratitude to “a true friend and ally, for her uncompromising efforts to eradicate antisemitism and ensure the well-being of Jews throughout Europe, as well as her commitment to enhancing the standing of the State of Israel and deepening its ties with the EU.”

Israel has a number of known universities and research institutes. What is special with Ben-Gurion university in the south of Israel, named after its founding father?

“The fact that the honorary doctorate comes from this prestigious institution, the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has a very special meaning for me,” von der Leyen explained in her speech. “This is not only because the list of your doctors honoris causa is truly impressive – from Simone Veil, as we have seen, to Yitzhak Rabin. There is also a more personal reason for me.”

She was impressed by the research at the university, which is located in the Negev desert and contributes to solving the global food crisis. In particular she was impressed to learn that over 800 students from the Bedouin community are studying at the Ben-Gurion University. “Israel is a small slice of land where people of all faiths and born on all continents live together,” she said.

She also paid tribute to Ben-Gurion's enduring legacy. “Ben-Gurion believed that Israel's strength depends on its democratic institutions. And only in a democracy, would citizens feel compelled to take responsibility for their common home. He is so right. Thanks to this conviction, the State of Israel has flourished ever since.”

Without Ben-Gurion’s determination and foresight Israel would not have been established as an independent country in 1948. After he retired to a kibbutz in Negev, he reflected on some of the crucial decisions taken by Israel. In a rare documentary aired a few years ago, he expressed unexpected views on making peace and concerns about the occupation of Palestinian territories after the six-days war.

Economic, scientific and cultural relations between the EU and Israel are already close. In which areas is there room for further developing the cooperation?

During her visit, von der Leyen emphasised the benefits for both EU and Israel of cooperation to tackle the challenges of climate change. Energy cooperation was especially mentioned by her and she outlined two projects, the import of natural gas and, in the long-term, renewable energy and hydrogen from Israel.

Walid Abu Haya, Deputy Head of Mission of Israel to the EU and NATO, told The Brussels Times that the relations are grounded on a shared history and common values. “Israel is one of the most active neighbours of the EU and our bilateral relations are diverse, well balanced, and mutually beneficial.”

He believes that the EU and Israel have not unlocked the full potential of their relations yet. “I’m sure that beyond our mutual interests, our partnership can benefit the region as a whole and help confront the challenges our world is facing. Together, we can offer new innovative solutions to fight against global warming, promote sustainable development, or develop green alternative energy sources to name but a few.”

Professor Efraim Inbar, President of Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, highlighted energy as a probable area of cooperation but was more cautious. “What is required is also a more mature European position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he told The Brussels Times.

Israel operates natural gas fields in its territorial waters but the issue of delivering it to Europe has not been solved yet. What options is the Commission considering to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels from Russia?

According to Professor Inbar, Israel is ready for the East Med pipeline that the EU seems to support. “In its absence an electricity undersea cable to Europe can be installed from a power station in Israel or Cyprus. Another alternative is to use the excess Egyptian capacity for liquification of gas and ship the gas to Europe. Israel exports already gas to Egypt.”

It appears from the trilateral MoU signed today in Cairo that the LGN option via Egypt was chosen, at least to start with. Natural gas from Israel, Egypt and other sources in the Eastern Mediterranean region will be shipped to Europe via Egypt's LNG export infrastructure, according to the agreement.

It aims to set forth a general framework to study the construction and operation of a pipeline to transport additional quantities of natural gas from Israel's offshore gas fields to Egypt. A spokesperson of the Commission specified at today’s press conference in Brussels that volume is estimated to 7 billion cubic meters (BCM) already this year and will potentially double later on.

This is only a small part of what the EUs needs to replace its imports of natural gas from Russia but will contribute to diversify its supply. The MoU, which runs for a period of 3 years to start with, does not create any legally binding obligations or commitments, or any financial obligations or commitments, between the three sides.

The parties will promote the reduction of methane leakage, and in particular examine new technologies for reducing venting and flaring and explore possibilities for the utilisation of captured methane throughout the entire supply chain. They will also endeavour to ensure that future investments will not cause pollution of the marine or land environment.

Perhaps more importantly in the long-term is the paragraph in the MoU which briefly mentions cooperation on the means for achieving green energy goals and combatting climate change in the areas of Utilizing renewable and low carbon hydrogen, Developing safe and sustainable energy technologies, and Promoting energy efficiency.

There has been surge in antisemitism, among others because of conspiracy theories on social media during the pandemic. Is the EU successful in combatting antisemitism by its new action plan?

“Anti-Semitism has not disappeared,” von der Leyen admitted. “It still poisons our societies. And anti-Semitic attacks happen today in Europe. It is a new threat, but it is the same old evil. Every new generation must take responsibility so that the past does not return. This is why I have put the fight against anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish life in Europe at the core of the European Commission's agenda.”

Prime Minister Bennett greeted von der Leyen as a true friend of the Jewish people and Israel and is convinced that her leadership signals a turning point in the fight against antisemitism in EU countries.

“Only time will tell if the new Commission strategy against antisemitism will be successful but the very fact that the Commission adopted this strategy is a very positive and strong signal,” commented the Israeli diplomat in Brussels. What is sure is that the work of Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU Coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, is appreciated in Israel.

Professor Inbar was more pessimistic, reflecting also the mistrust of the previous Israeli government of the EU. “Antisemitism is a phenomenon deeply rooted in European culture. Even the shock of the Holocaust did not put an end to it. It will take generations until the European can heal themselves of this self-afflicted malady by systematic efforts to uproot it.”

The deadlock in solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict risks cementing an unsustainable situation. Did the EU propose any new ideas on confidence-building measures to relaunch the political process?

No official comments were received from any of the sides. As already mentioned, von der Leyen’s visit to Israel did not aim at relaunching the peace process. In the speech, however, she talked about the challenges to democracy and sent indirectly a message to the Israeli government.

“This challenge is within. It is the risk of backsliding that all our democracies face. Democracy is necessarily a work in progress. It must be exercised and renewed, each and every day. Each of our democracies is different and unique. But ultimately, democracy in all its forms comes down to the same thing.

“Today, this (democracy) is challenged in many ways. Societies are becoming more fragmented. Public debate has become more polarised, and it gets harder and harder to focus on the common good. From the attacks against the rule of law and free press, and free research in some parts of Europe, to minority rights and coexistence here in the region.”

“The path towards peaceful coexistence is long. And democracy is never accomplished once and for all. This is also true for the European Union.”

Professor Inbar studies interests and believes more in political realism than cconfidence-building measures. “Palestinian intransigence is the problem and the EU should not help a corrupt and authoritarian Palestinian entity. Europe needs to signal to a democratic Israel that it is not helping terrorism. All Israeli offers for a compromise were rejected by the Palestinians.”

A recent issue between the EU and Israel was Israel’s ban on six Palestinian civil society organisations because of alleged links with terror groups. Has the dispute been resolved and can the funding to them be resumed?

Israel claimed that it had shown evidence about the links to EU and EU member states but the evidence was rejected as insufficient according to recent media reports.

“We are in very close contact with the Commission on this and as far as I can tell we have not seen yet any official decision,” replied Walid Walid Abu Haya at the Israeli mission in Brussels.

“Certain positions and flow of funds only contribute to the perpetuation of the conflict as it feeds Palestinian unrealistic aspirations,” commented Professor Inbar. “There is no reason to doubt the judgement of the Israeli security services. This affair only makes the Israelis question the European ability to distinguish between facts and misinformation.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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