Thursday

22nd Feb 2018

Opinion

Mogherini's to-do list in Israel

  • The EU and Israel don't see eye-to-eye on MEPP, but should not be blind to other opportunities (Photo: Ted Eytan)

The EU’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, is travelling in the Middle East this week in an effort to help revive the long-stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

This will provide a valuable opportunity to discuss and potentially re-align EU-Israel relations with prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, a much-needed step in times of geopolitical transformation and uncertainty in the region and beyond.

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While providing a relatively successful case compared to the rather disappointing record of EU co-operation with other states in the Middle East and northern Africa (Mena), EU-Israel relations largely remain a story of unfulfilled promises and persistant suspicion.

EU and Israeli positions towards the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) remain hardly compatible, and the two sides have developed starkly different approaches to the problems in the post-Arab Spring region.

On the Iranian nuclear negotiations, relations with Al Sisi’s Egypt, the distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings and other regional dossiers, the EU and Israel have grown accustomed to disagreement.

The divergence transcends regional issues to include the Ukrainian crisis and relations with Russia.

Current uncertainties surrounding the domestic and foreign policy agenda of the new Israeli government, the small prospect of a prompt resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the highly volatile security landscape in the Mena region, and the US’ evolving regional posture are all set to affect this relationship.

The risk of deepening mistrust in EU-Israel relations should be tackled with a mix of diplomatic realism and political vision.

Window

But there is a window of opportunity.

The current review process of EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) provides a timely institutional framework for the two sides to re-assess areas of mutual interest.

The new Israeli government is also reviewing its regional policies and its global posture, including towards the EU.

Constrained by a significant pro-MEPP component in the Knesset, and pressed by its Western partners, the new coalition will have to deliver a credible policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, both in terms of the moribund MEPP and the dire situation in Gaza.

The EU and Israel need to acknowledge that their distinctive attitudes towards the MEPP are not going to disappear anytime soon.

They must refrain from making such divergence the only, highly emotional, driver of relations and to consolidate a more mature, and incrementally ambitious, bilateral agenda in policy areas where co-operation prevails over confrontation.

This shouldn’t come at the expense of a frank but respectful dialogue on the MEPP.

Values

But a tentative re-alignment could be based on common values such as democracy, rule of law, and a functioning market economy. It could be cemented by shared interests in trade and investment, science, research, technology, and, possibly, energy.

It could also be enhanced by stronger bilateral consultation and assessment-sharing on domestic, regional, and global issues, such as the evolving geopolitical landscape in the Mena region.

It could start with a clear-eyed engagement on ‘the day after’ the Iranian nuclear deal and the fight against Islamic State and Islamic radicalisation more broadly, especially in the context of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks.

Other agenda items could include formulation of an effective diplomacy on Hamas and Hezbollah, on the security-development-migration dossier, on Russia’s new posture in Europe and its ambiguous posture in the Middle East (as shown by the Kremlin’s potential transfer of S-300 missiles to Iran).

Non-traditional challenges like cyber-security and water scarcity should also be considered.

The EU should develop a more realistic assessment of the region’s paramount issues, with the aim of crafting a smart(er) strategy, better combining the tools of EU external action: diplomacy; security co-operation; trade; and development.

Partners

For its part, Israel should develop a more creative diplomacy toward new regional partners, whether state or non-state entities, in order to counter extremism and promote stabilisation.

The rapprochement could be lubricated by new platforms for informal debate between the two sides.

Despite the stalemate, EU-Israel relations have the potential to transform the region for the better - both more courage and more pragmatism are needed to move ahead.

Andrea Frontini is a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. Eran Etzion is director of the Forum of Strategic Dialogue in Tel Aviv, Israel

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