Patterns in European Attitudes Towards Israel

Interview with Prof. Uriel Rosenthal, former Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Tags: EU -Israel
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

OpEds Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

Israel would do well not to view Europe as an antagonistic unity.
“Political support for Israel in the Netherlands has strongly declined in recent years. The only two parties which fully support Israel are the small Protestant SGP which has three seats out of 150 in the Chamber and the Freedom Party (PVV) led by Geert Wilders, which is entirely isolated however, both in the Chamber and in the Senate.”

Professor Uriel Rosenthal has taught Political Science at Leiden University. From 2010 until 2012, he was the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs. He became a Senator for the VVD (Liberal Party) in 1999 and headed its Senate faction from 2005 until 2010.

Rosenthal says, “The relationship between Israel and the European Union is continuously tense. This is not only a question of national politics, but also of the personal preferences of government members."

“Among the 28 E.U. member states, one recognizes a number of patterns as far as attitudes toward Israel are concerned. Northern European countries, for various reasons, can hardly be considered pro-Israel. In those countries, a mix of social and political attitudes plays a role as well as personalities who shape the content of foreign policies.

"Ireland takes a clearly pro-Palestinian stand. This is often explained by the previously common background of the IRA and the PLO.

“It was possible for me to arrive at a common position on Israel with Belgium, even if it was sometimes difficult. The current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Luxembourg has taken a very pro-Palestinian position. I assume that there were differences of opinion on this issue in that country’s government.

“On the southern side of Europe, successive Italian governments had positive positions toward Israel. For Spain and Portugal, this was far less the case. Greece has been preoccupied with itself for many years already. Malta has to take into account its Arab ‘neighbors.’

“Several central European countries are often pro-Israel. This is true for the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. For Hungary, this is less so. As far as Poland is concerned - it looks for strategic coalitions, thus from time to time its position is disappointing. The three Baltic states are certainly not a priori against Israel.

“Both the foreign and defense policies of the E.U are mainly determined by the large member countries. Nowadays this means an axis of England and France. If they agree, the matter is settled. Germany refused to participate in Western military actions in Libya and is an outsider on these issues.

“Like Japan, Germany has seen the army as a necessary evil since World War II. What is also important is that England and France are nuclear powers. They still have rather strong armies which can play a role in wider military actions. An important factor often underestimated, is that both countries are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. If Germany desired however, it could play a much bigger role as far as foreign policy is concerned.

“Defense is not Europe’s forté. The E.U. is mainly very powerful economically. My experience during visits to Asian countries was that the by far most important subject of our conversations from their viewpoint was the Euro crisis. It created many problems for Asian countries.

“Let me summarize Israel’s relationship with the E.U.:

"Israel is clearly on the defensive. It is however, not put into a corner like at the United Nations. In that international forum, various extreme resolutions are accepted which can best be described as ‘Israel-bashing.’ The situation is particularly difficult at the U.N. Human Rights Council. Attacks on Israel there have worked to the advantage of countries such as Iran, Zimbabwe and Cuba. Until 2011, this was also the case for Syria. Regretfully, some European countries also participate in applying such double standards.

“If Israel wants to clarify its positions and obtain support for its views in the E.U., it has to pass a barrier which is mainly related to its attitude vis-a-vis the 'occupied territories'.

"Israel would do well not to view Europe as an antagonistic unity. As said, there is diversity between the attitudes of individual countries.   

“It is furthermore not clever of Israel to emphasize that regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, only the U.S. position is relevant and what Europe says does not matter much. Europe’s role in the conflict is secondary. Yet it is not very pleasant to be told that you are irrelevant.

"I said this to Prime Minister Netanyahu.”  

Rosenthal returns to the role of the Netherlands: “As Minister of Foreign Affairs I have often said to the Israelis: ‘Help me so that I can help you.’ I had good relations with the Palestinian Authority including Mohammed Abbas. The Palestinians knew that I had a good rapport with Israel’s leaders. I could thus achieve some things on both sides. I assume that my successor will maintain a similar attitude.”