by Jacques Chitayat
The Knesset is currently in a political deadlock, with parties unable to find common ground and compromises. Being already in a difficult political situation, Israel cannot afford on top of that to be diplomatically isolated in the international scene, meaning the country needs as many allies as possible. While economic relations between Israel and the European Union can be considered positive, political relations have often been hindered by the Palestinian issue. This has sometimes led to legal disputes and even boycotts of Israeli products made in the West Bank. For example, goods produced in Israeli settlements are not subject to the EU-Israel free-trade agreement, and the EU took a decision in 2015 to label products made in the West Bank. However, the EU remains Israel’s biggest trading partner, with the total volume of bilateral trade between the two reaching €31.4 billion in 2013. Therefore, the parties elected to the European Parliament and the stances it will adopt are of critical importance to Israel’s economy and international relations.
The European Parliament elections of last weekend left many disappointed. Pro-EU leaders spoke of a Eurosceptic and a nationalist, even xenophobic wave sweeping through the continent, and for them, seeing populist parties obtain majorities in many countries is a sad sight indeed. But from Israel’s point of view, a more populist European Parliament would be a reassuring result. PM Netanyahu has made many efforts in developing good relations with populist European leaders, who tend to offer support for Israel in European politics. For example, in Italy, Mateo Salvini’s League, considered a great friend of Israel, was the undisputed winner last Sunday. Last December, the Italian leader met PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem, during which Salvini said he would take it upon himself to fight bias against Israel at the United Nations, UNESCO and the European Union. Finding common ground with Israel on another issue, Salvini said that “The growing anti-Semitism goes together with Islamic extremism, to which no one is paying attention” (Salvini, Foreign Press Association, 2018). His presence in the European Parliament will certainly contribute to fighting the anti-Israel bias in the EU and the UN, which has stifled Israel’s diplomatic relations for years.
Another promising victory for Israel’s EU relations was Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. Netanyahu met Orban in Jerusalem last July, where the Hungarian leader affirmed that the two countries agree on many current issues, such as security, combating terrorism and modern antisemitism. Despite an antisemitic current in Hungarian society, Orban declared himself proud that Jewish citizens can feel safe in Hungary where, according to him, a great deal has been done to assist the cultural rebuilding of the country’s Jewish community. More importantly, according to the office of the Hungarian PM, “The Prime Minister also highlighted that Hungary will always take action to ensure that international organisations treat Israel in a fair, balanced and unbiased manner. He said that in the future Hungary will also continue to closely cooperate with Israel in international forums.” (Miniszterelnok, 2018).
In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, formerly called National Front, surpassed Macron’s, becoming the biggest French party in the European Parliament. Relations between Israel and this party were less than ideal when Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust denier, was its leader, and some current members of the party were accused of antisemitism. However, Marine Le Pen, who steers the general direction of her party, has never been accused of such, and has recently tried to establish contact with Israeli officials. Also, in an interview with Haaretz, she expressed that France and Israel have a shared concern about radical Islam, and that “After all, the National Front has always been Zionistic and always defended Israel’s right to exist” (Marine Le Pen, Haaretz, 2011).
However, good relations with all populist parties of Europe is not a done deal. Relations between Israel and Poland, which is governed by a clearly populist party, are currently less than ideal, with disputes over property restitution to Polish Holocaust victims creating tensions between the two countries. Nigel Farage, having won a stunning victory in the EU elections with his newly formed Brexit Party, on one hand has clearly condemned the world’s double standards against Israel. On the other hand, he was heard saying how the Jewish lobby supposedly has too much power in American politics, supporting the classic antisemitic conspiracy, and official discussions between him and Israeli officials have yet to take place. But in terms of having pro-Israel voices in the European Parliament, which has been undeniably biased against the country for years according to journalists, scholars and politicians, some headway has been made with victories of major parties who in the past have offered Israel diplomatic support and will continue to do so.
Jacques Chitayat is a fellow at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research and is a Political Science major.