Almost every day comes news of another European financial institution, cultural or educational organization that has signed-on to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement aimed at isolating the state of Israel from the international community.
Most recently, it was the Royal Institute of British Architects
(RIBA) which passed a resolution calling for the suspension of its Israeli counterpart – the Israeli Association of United Architects – from the worldwide umbrella organization.
It was the latest example of growing tensions between Israel and Europe despite the close economic and security ties between them. Yet, despite the friction, three European heads of state - Francois Hollande
of France, Angela Merkel
of Germany, and David Cameron
of the UK - have visited Israel in the past few months.
“We have a very vibrant and extensive and mutually beneficial and productive relationship,” Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the head of the delegation of the European Union to Israel told The Media Line. “We also have some areas in which we have disagreement. We have to keep things in perspective.”
However, he added, the EU has serious misgivings about Israel’s continued construction in areas that Israel acquired in 1967, areas the Palestinians claim for their future state.
“We have been critical about the idea of expanding settlements,” Faaborg-Andersen said referring to Israeli communities located on post-1967 land. “We feel they are undermining the trust between the parties. They are also making the two-state solution that an overwhelming majority of both Palestinians and Israelis support, together with the international community, more difficult to achieve.”
His remarks came as Israel is due to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners as a good-will gesture connected to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to get Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree to a “framework” peace agreement. Amid reports of growing pessimism on both sides that a deal will be reached, there are growing calls within Israel not to go through with that prisoner release, which is set to include Arab citizens of Israel for the first time, most of whom committed or contributed to the murder of Israeli Jews.
Despite tensions between Israel and the EU, there are growing economic ties. Dan Catarivas, the director of Foreign Trade and International Relations for the Manufacturers Association of Israel, told a conference on Europe and Israel that the volume of trade between Israel and the EU is more than $41 billion a year.
He said that 31 percent of Israel’s exports go to the EU, and 34 percent of the country’s imports come from the EU.
“Europe is and will be our major partner in the years to come,” he told the conference, which was sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. “Emerging markets like China and India are nice, but Europe is our bread and butter. We need to cherish and develop the relationship.”
Israel and Europe already have a free trade agreement, and the EU has offered even more benefits if Israel and the Palestinians reach a peace agreement.
Some experts warn that the BDS movement is gaining steam and is expressed in growing anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is growing in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and even in Germany, Poland and Austria. We shouldn’t neglect that,” Yehuda Kinar, a former Israeli ambassador to Belgium told The Media Line. “In Paris, a university abolished the study of Hebrew. This is a clear sign the fact is we are not speaking about a boycott of the settlements, but of the whole of Israel.”
EU Ambassador Faaborg-Andersen said produce from the West Bank and East Jerusalem is labeled as such.
“Because it is not grown in Israel, it does not receive the benefits of all of the agreements between Israel and Europe,” he said.
Several speakers at the conference said that the BDS movement has not spread widely and, although noisy, will not damage the close relations between Israel and Europe.
“I don’t think the boycott movement has been a success story and I think that Europe and Israel will remain strong and good partners,” Michael Mertes, the director of the Israel office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation told The Media Line.
He said there has long been a paradox in relations between Israel and Europe.
“On one side these relations are very very good,” he said. “There is no country outside Europe with which EU has such a strong relationship. At the same time there is an impression of permanent crisis. This does not reflect reality.”
Linda Gradstein wrote this story.
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line.