It is easy to get the impression from the Israeli media and from statements by politicians that the EU attempts to “discipline” the Israeli government, subvert Israeli civil society against the government and use various punitive measures in order to force compliance with EU policy directives. The gap between discourse and facts is striking. By Shir Hever.
This article is part of a series which analyses various approaches Europe might pursue to advance the end of occupation and bring forward Israel-Palestinian peace.
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There are, in fact, no punitive measures implemented by any EU country against the State of Israel, nor does the EU hold jurisdiction over the Israeli state to “discipline” its government. The EU and its member states have, however, a responsibility to their own laws, to avoid complicity with Israeli violations of international law.
Two factors shape the Israeli response to European politics. One is the high sensitivity of the Israeli public regarding its relations with the West. Europe and the US remain Israel’s main trading partners and its social, political and cultural frame of reference. The second factor is the high level of populism in the Israeli government, reducing the political debate into brief and dramatic statements with little nuance. These two factors combine to reduce the coverage of Israeli foreign relations to a simple “us vs. them” dichotomy.
Sensitivity of Israeli Public and Populism of Government
Former Minister of the Economy (and current Minister of Education) Naftali Bennet responded to the 2013 EU guidelines on European funding for projects in the Israeli colonies in the West Bank, illegal under international law, as “economic terrorism,” equating deadly physical attacks on Israeli civilians with guidelines for European funding to Israeli research projects. Various Israeli NGOs who are supported by European funding are also de-legitimized and portrayed as foreign agents.
In the public discourse in Israel, there is almost no distinction between an accurate labelling of products from the West Bank, and the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). As such, the EU simply does not have the option of implementing a gradient of policy responses in order to create incentives and disincentives for the Israeli government. Any attempt at a nuanced response is interpreted either as limitless support or as open hostility, nothing in between.
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The BDS movement has adapted well to this reality. While BDS is not a punitive measure, grassroots protest actions against Israeli policies, minor as they may be, trigger a disproportionate response from the Israeli government and media. BDS is framed as an “existential threat,” thereby sparking an internal debate within Israeli society about the sustainability of Israel’s illegal policies, which was precisely the goal of BDS.
Trapped in the “us vs. them” mentality, the Israeli government perceives anything short of a Western criminalization of BDS as a punitive measure, because of the reluctance to separate the public from the governments.
Netanyahu’s “us vs. them” approach
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tactic during the visit of German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in April demonstrates this “us vs. them” approach. Netanyahu tried to recruit Gabriel for his campaign against critical NGOs in Israel, in an attempt to present to the Israeli public a pro-Israeli international coalition which targets critical NGOs, in a similar way to which the BDS is perceived as an international coalition targeting the Israeli government. Failing that, as long as Germany remains on friendly terms with Israel the populist Israeli discourse does not discuss the subtle but long-term damage that was caused by Netanyahu’s ultimatum, with the exception of a few non-populist journalists such as Mazal Mualem. Following the meeting, the Times of Israel falsely reported that B’tselem issued a call to “punish Israel” – thereby utilizing the language of punitive measures out of context.
Netanyahu’s analysis of European politics was revealed in his comment caught on microphone during a meeting with east-European leaders in July. Netanyahu understands that the self-contradictory and inconsistent policies of liberal European governments makes them unpredictable and ineffective in promoting their own interests. The strong pro-Israeli sentiment and stalwart opposition to any pressure on the Israeli government is widespread among extreme-right administrations in Europe, with an emphasis on Hungary, Poland, and now Austria. Right-wing politicians support Israel for domestic reasons. They support the Israeli government because of the occupation and Israel’s extreme security policies, using Israel as a model for anti-immigration and Islamophobic policies.
As Major-General Yoav Galant, currently the minister of housing, said in the film “The Lab” (2013): “While certain countries in Europe or Asia condemned us for attacking civilians, they sent their officers here and I briefed generals from ten countries so they could understand how we reached such a low ratio. There is a lot of hypocrisy. They condemn you politically while they ask you what your trick is, you Israelis, for turning blood into money.” Indeed, how can Western governments punish Israeli violations of international law, when at the same time they are importing and implementing the technologies designed and tested during those violations?
Germany and EU must first look inwards
In order to construct a consistent foreign policy towards Israel, Germany and other EU countries must first look inwards to examine their complicity with Israeli violations of international law. Germany is obligated to ensure that none of its weapons are used in assaults on Palestinian civilians or other forms of violations of international law, and that no German funds reach illegal colonization projects in the West Bank. German courts are obligated to sentence German officials for violating this obligation.
The Israeli response to a consistent European policy is predictable, it will be an aggressive and extreme response. On the other hand, the high sensitivity of the Israeli public to the risk of losing good relations with the West leaves very little degrees of freedom to the Israeli government to actually respond to such policies in any but rhetorical means, while internalizing that the continued abuses of international law are in fact unsustainable. In order to bring about an end of the occupation, of the discrimination of non-Jews and of the denial of the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees, it is not necessary for the EU to enact punitive measures against the State of Israel. It is sufficient that it will cease actively supporting those Israeli policies.
Dr. Shir Hever is a political scientist living in Heidelberg and conducting research for various organizations. His upcoming book is titled: “The Privatization of Israel’s Security” and will be published shortly by Pluto Press.
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