The Foreign Ministry sees positive trends in Israel-Europe relations and has even won over some of the Abraham Accords skeptics.
“For years, European states connected developing relations with Israel to the conflict with the Palestinians,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a video conference with Israeli ambassadors across Europe on Monday. “The ministry’s goal has been to reduce the tension and the connection and continue advancing bilateral dialogue while dealing with the Palestinian issue.”
Ashkenazi said that improving ties with Europe has been his priority since entering office in May, and on that front, he has sought “direct, positive and constructive dialogue,” as opposed to “megaphone diplomacy.”
Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General for Europe Anna Azari said that a year ago, when she prepared her working program for 2020 and looked at the challenges and goals ahead, blowback from the possibility that Israel may extend its sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria was at the top of the agenda.
“There were catastrophic forecasts of tensions across the board,” Azari said.
But once “annexation” was suspended, in favor of the Abraham Accords signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, “we had two to three months of the reverse, even in an exaggerated way, that soon we will solve all our problems with Europe,” she recounted.
Now that the dust has settled, Azari said the atmosphere for dialogue with European countries is still significantly improved from where it was a year ago.
At the same time, Azari said that “in many, but not all EU states, there was a cold or even upset response to the Abraham Accords.”
Many of those states behave as though “the Palestinians come before anything else,” and as such, “their working assumption was that peace processes with other countries – which they mostly call normalization – means we will abandon the Palestinians,” Azari explained.
The Foreign Ministry has been working to help those European diplomats understand the shift in the paradigm of the Middle East.
“We had to explain that nothing negative has happened; the opposite is true,” she said, and in the ensuing months, many of the attitudes towards the accords have changed for the better.
Azari credited Ashkenazi use of the slogan “from annexation to normalization” in meetings with European foreign ministers, and repeatedly saying that Israel’s door is open to the Palestinians, as instrumental in warming many European states’ attitudes towards the Abraham Accords.
“The picture is better than what we would expect,” she said. “For many, dialogue with the Palestinians is still the most important thing, but they’re realizing that the reason there is no dialogue is the Palestinians themselves. We’re in a better place than we were a year ago in that respect.”
During 2020, 13 foreign ministers and two prime ministers from Europe visited Israel, and Ashkenazi took part in a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin this summer, something that no Israeli foreign minister had been invited to do before.
In addition, seven countries – Germany, Austria, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Czech Republic – banned Hezbollah in its entirety, as opposed to EU policy, which allows a “political arm” of the Lebanese terrorist group to operate on the continent.
“The reality is contrary to Europe’s image among Israelis that they’re all against us,” Azari said.
The Foreign Ministry divides EU member states into three categories – supportive, medium, and challenging – and the first two are larger than the third, though the ministry would not divulge who is in which group.
Israel has worked to improve relations with supportive subgroups within the EU, such as the Visegrad countries – Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland – Baltic states, and the “Energy Triangle” of Greece and Cyprus with Israel, which helped positively influence broader EU policy towards Israel last year, Azari said.
Azari said she has seen some positive trends in the “challenging” category, especially when it comes to willingness to support a meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council, the body meant to strengthen bilateral ties between the two, which has not convened since 2013, with some EU states withholding authorization in protest against Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell has been strongly in favor of reinstating the association council since Israel suspended annexation plans.
The Foreign Ministry is also in dialogue with the EU and individual member states to stop illegal construction in Area C of the West Bank and to coordinate any further building with Israel, but the matter has yet to be resolved.