Home inFocus The Future of Israel’s Strategic Relations with Europe

The Future of Israel’s Strategic Relations with Europe

Tommy Steiner

Any stocktaking of Israel’s relations with Europe writ large, including the European Union (EU), will show that the relationship rests on a solid foundations – values, shared history, solid interests, and common threats. Nonetheless, not only is this relationship sub-optimal in terms of realizing its full potential, but more worryingly, mutual mistrust plagues the parties’ interaction. The mistrust runs deep – many European officials loudly question Israel’s Western credentials and consider a range of Israeli actions and policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be illegitimate, while Israeli officials cannot but speculate over the sources of what they consider to be European “double standards” and an anti-Israel bias. The disdain in Jerusalem has reached a point that senior Israeli officials have come to write off Europe and search for alternative international partners.

Over the past four decades, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the focus of extensive (bordering on exaggerated) European diplomatic engagement. The disproportionate European attention reflects a predominantly superficial perception of the conflict and its possible resolution, placing the onus of responsibility for its protraction mainly, if not solely, upon Israel. Furthermore, until most recently, the dominant conception in Europe was excessively simplistic in suggesting that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the core conflict and problem of the Middle East, and its resolution (following Israeli concessions to Palestinians) would transform – magically and instantly – the region for the better. The regional turmoil, the “Arab Spring”, and its aftermath have tempered the perception concerning the centrality of the conflict to all regional ailments. This recognition however, has not triggered a European “soul search” or an overall reassessment of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its supposed “culprit.” If anything, a growing number of European governments have become ever more vocal and harsh in their criticism of the Israeli government concerning the peace process.

Europe’s Political Criticism

European criticism has focused primarily on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights, including the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Curiously, the settlement issue was never as high on the Palestinian agenda as it became on the European agenda, and subsequently on the American agenda as well. Nonetheless, the EU has even moved from words to deeds and has taken action by forbidding any transfer of official funds of the EU (not the member-states) to these territories. In addition, the EU is considering a proposition to effectively ban the import of agricultural and food goods produced by Israelis in these territories. However, these measures warrant an examination whether they represent a universal EU policy that is applied in other cases of territorial disputes involving its partners and neighbors. Not surprisingly, a close review of several cases, such as the fishery agreement with Morocco concerning Sahara waters and funds to the Turkish community in Northern Cyprus, suggest that the EU guidelines constitute a discriminatory policy directed exclusively against Israel.

American and European officials contend that their blatant objection to Israeli “settlement activities” derives from “the fact” that it constitutes a violation of International Law and dismissively brush aside any Israeli counter-position. Europeans further contend that the continuation of settlement activity undermines the possibility of resolving the conflict and reaching a “two state solution.” They cannot however, explain how Israeli settlements that take up no more than 3 percent of the West Bank territory undermine a future viable Palestinian state and tend to overlook the fact that Israel has removed settlements in the past. Furthermore, it seems rather difficult to accept Europe’s inclination to focus more on Israeli errors and alleged injustices while taking a more forgiving (if not indifferent) view of Palestinian transgressions (such as anti-Israel incitement in official media and school textbooks), by noting that if Israel aspires to be a Western democracy, it should act “accordingly.”

There is some thought that Europe’s harsh, if not biased, position vis-à-vis Israel reflects an attempt to accommodate the growing Islamic population in Europe, but this does not seem to be the case. First, European involvement dates back to the late 1970s, resulting in the 1980 Venice Declaration. At that time, the smaller Muslim population in Europe had no bearing on the issue. Second, the European Commission and its European External Action Service have no electoral considerations, but nonetheless they are the driving force behind Europe’s extensive pre-occupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Third, among some of the harshest critics of Israel–Ireland, for example–the Muslim population is a non-issue. True, there are a handful of constituencies in several European countries with large Muslim populations, but to ascribe the EU’s policies to them would not be correct.

So that leaves the question, ‘Why do the Europeans still focus on the conflict even when they understand that it is not the core problem of the Middle East and the source of all regional ailments?’ My assessment – which is admittedly hard to verify – suggests a combination of two factors. First, old habits and deeply rooted beliefs die hard – this has been a traditional policy issue. Along with this, Europe has invested considerable financial resources in the Palestinian Authority since its inception and cannot but remain engaged. Second, in face of the intricate challenges of a volatile Middle East, Europeans rightfully find it difficult to formulate a coherent strategy and set of policy responses. They admit that for a range of reasons the influence and impact of Europe in the Middle East is constrained and presume that the only arena in which they might make a difference is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While they acknowledge that peace will not transform the Middle East, they believe it is within reach – if only Israel would concede – and resolving the conflict would have a positive impact, even if limited.

European governments and officials have even been highly critical of Israeli security measures in face of Palestinian terror – be it the blockade on Gaza, the security perimeter between Israel proper and the West Bank, or military counter-terrorism operations (ranging from targeted interception of terrorists to larger-scale military operations). Yet, a close examination would suggest that Israel’s military track record in terms of humanitarian considerations are at least as high as (if not higher than) NATO and Western military operations in the broader Middle East.

Israel’s Experience Proves Useful to Europe

This poor and regretful state of relations comes at a time in which Europe and Israel increasingly face joint threats and share critical strategic interests. Arguably, Europe has a vital interest in maintaining, and where possible advancing, Middle East regional peace and security to:

(a) Curtail, and if possible destroy, both the production and the world export of violence and instability through terror, WMD and missile proliferation, and radical Islamism;

(b) maintain energy security;

(c) provide maritime security along the main global shipping routes crossing, and adjacent to, the Middle East.

Thus, in terms of strategic interests, there is no daylight between Israel and Europe. Furthermore, the interests of no other country along the Mediterranean Basin and in the Middle East are as closely in line with the strategic interests of Europe –together with those of North America and the West – than are Israel’s natural inclinations.

Israel’s defense and military experience proved particularly crucial for Europe as it became involved militarily in various Middle East contingencies following September 11, 2001. The alarmingly growing number of European foreign fighters joining jihadist groups in the Middle East, cyber warfare, the Iranian nuclear and missile threat, the transforming of the Mediterranean Basin into a launch pad for terrorism in Europe, and threats to maritime and energy security are all areas of mutual concern. Over the past decade and a half, European militaries have found themselves in unchartered waters. Israel, by contrast, has accumulated vast operational, intelligence, and counterterrorism experience, which the Europeans lack. Israel offered intelligence sharing, essential arms sales, and joint training exercises.

A useful illustration is civil war-mired Syria, Israel’s northeast neighbor. Since the outbreak of hostilities in Syria, Israel has provided essential intelligence on Syria to European security agencies. Con Coughlin, The Telegraph’s defense correspondent, has written that Britain has become so reliant on Israeli intelligence that it simply cannot afford a crisis with Israel.

Over the past decade, Israeli defense contractors have not only increased their arms sales to Europe, but also expanded joint development and marketing projects with their European counterparts. Israeli defense manufacturer Rafael – in consortium with two German counterparts – adapted the “Spike” anti-tank portable missile system for European militaries. The armed forces of the UK, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands procured and extensively used the Israeli-German “EuroSpike” in Afghanistan.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have also featured high on the Israeli-European defense market despite European criticism regarding “drone warfare.” Half of Israel’s exports of UAVs go to Europe, mainly the UK, Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain. Israel’s Elbit and France’s Thales jointly developed ‘Watchkeeper WK450,’ which was extensively used in Afghanistan and in Africa.

Israel and NATO: Diminishing Returns for Israel?

Israel conducts joint training exercises with American and European militaries nearly every year. For instance, in November and December 2013, Israel hosted the American, German Italian, Polish air forces, near Eilat for a major international exercise. Codenamed “Blue Flag,” the drill involved hundreds of aircraft and a thousand crewmembers simulating both counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations and traditional air-to-air combat. A considerable share of the European-Israeli military-to-military exchange is conducted within the NATO framework.

The NATO-Israel relationship has expanded significantly over the last decade and following September 11th within the framework of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue. In October 2006, after a prolonged negotiation process of more than 18 months, Israel and NATO concluded an Individual Cooperation Program (ICP). Israel was the first country outside of Europe – and the first among NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue Countries – to conclude such a protocol. This was an important step because from its beginnings, actual cooperation within the Mediterranean Dialogue was limited mostly to the multilateral framework. Thus, while Israel considered itself a natural partner of NATO, it was nonetheless restricted to the joint agenda of the other Mediterranean Dialogue countries. The multilateral agenda of the Mediterranean Dialogue reflected the lowest common denominator, essentially Egypt, which from the beginning was not interested in an enhancement of NATO presence in the area.

The NATO-Israel ICP, renewed and modestly expanded in December 2008, was a wide-ranging framework that enabled the expansion of the scope of current cooperation. Detailing twenty-seven areas of cooperation, the ICP included response to terrorism, armament cooperation and management, nuclear, biological, and chemical defense, military doctrine and exercises, civilian emergency plans, and disaster preparedness. The ICP also offered the sharing of intelligence and security expertise on different subjects and an increase in the number of joint Israel-NATO military exercises.

Israel soon sought to demonstrate its interest in developing concrete cooperation with NATO. Israel announced in 2006 that it was willing to contribute to NATO’s maritime anti-terrorist operation in the Mediterranean Sea, Operation Active Endeavour. Later that year, NATO and Israel officially exchanged letters agreeing to the posting of an Israeli Navy Liaison Officer to NATO Allied Joint Force Command Naples, the headquarters of Operation Active Endeavour. In 2009, Israel officially announced that it was willing to contribute a Navy corvette to Operation Active Endeavour. The proposal did not materialize as Israel’s relations with Turkey soured and the latter blocked the initiative.

Israel’s experience in counter-terrorism military operations was particularly important for NATO. In 2009, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola – then-chairman of NATO’s Military Committee – visited Israel to study IDF operational theory and learned-lessons to inform NATO operations in Afghanistan. Di Paola was particularly interested in Israeli specialized armor against Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), as well as intelligence gathering and counter-terror military operations in civilian-populated areas. This visit came just weeks after the issuance of the infamous Goldstone Report that alleged that Israel had committed war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians in Gaza (though Goldstone himself withdrew and retracted that accusation). The contrast was striking – only weeks after the European Parliament endorsed the report, the European chair of NATO’s military committee was visiting Israel, for the third time in four years, to study Israeli experience in dealing with terror insurgencies without causing undue collateral harm to civilians.


The benefits to NATO notwithstanding, the deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations has led Turkey to block as much as it can the further development of NATO-Israel relations. Turkey, a NATO ally, effectively frustrated NATO’s attempts to upgrade relations with Israel along the lines of NATO’s new Partnership Policy. To its credit, NATO’s political leadership and international staff have since sought to overcome the Turkish hurdle that has resulted in hampering much of NATO’s overall partnership programs. Consequently, though, Israel has lost much of its interest in furthering its relations with NATO. It is reluctant to both face a Turkish veto and to share and contribute intelligence and capabilities offered to all NATO allies, Turkey included.

While NATO-Israel relations have so far been nearly divorced of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the development of this relationship was considered a catalyst for broadening the European-Israeli agenda, the protraction of the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be taking a toll on enhancing NATO-Israeli partnership. A senior NATO official recently warned Israeli counterparts that Israeli settlement policy has a “corrosive effect” even on relations with NATO.

Making Relations Work

Despite the difficulties, writing Europe off would be a strategic blunder for Israel and the economic and scientific domain shows that shared interests can prevail. Israel’s participation in the EU’s scientific research programs is particularly noteworthy. In 1996, Israel became the first, and then only, non-EU member to become an associated member of the program. In the last round of programs (2007-2013), Israeli academic institutions and private enterprises participated in more than 1,500 projects and Israeli participants enjoyed a high rate of success in grant applications. During the course of the last program, the Government of Israel contributed some $600 million to the common fund, while Israeli entities received back more than $870 million in research funds. In 2012, the EU and Israel upgraded their relations in a format that fell short of Israeli expectations, but in itself demonstrated the wide-breadth of the ties across sixty specific areas of joint activities from energy to agriculture, through police and law enforcement, to space exploration.

Thus, there is no reason to believe that as threats emanating from the Middle East to European security are on the rise, Europe and Israel could not intensify their cooperation and exchange on defense and strategic affairs. Europe has a clear interest in this, as does Israel. For instance, as NATO develops a new strategy to defend the Alliance from threats in the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East – dubbed “Strategy South” – Israel has an interest in shaping NATO’s new approach.

Although Israel has been critical of the European and American management of the Iranian nuclear file, and the negotiations with Iran might indeed produce a “bad agreement,” Europe did play a critical role in forcing Iran to reconsider its positions because of European sanctions that harmed Iran’s economy considerably. Both Israel and Europe will have an interest in strategic coordination and cooperation on the “day after” an agreement with Iran to preserve Middle East peace and security. This may not resolve all outstanding disputes concerning the peace process and will not entirely eliminate the deep mistrust between the two. However, expanding and broadening the exchange and interactions might contribute to a better understanding of the respective positions, particularly of the unique security and strategic challenges facing Israel. At the end of the day, Europe is Israel’s most like-minded close neighbor, and Israel is Europe’s most reliable and like-minded strategic partner in its volatile backyard.

Tommy Steiner is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, IDC Herzliya, and teaches International Relations and Security Studies at IDC’s Lauder School of Government.