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Uneasy Neighbors : Israel and the European Union by Sharon Pardo and Joel Peters

Uneasy Neighbors : Israel and the European Union by Sharon Pardo and Joel Peters, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010) ISBN 978-0-7391-2755-1 (cloth); 978-0-7391-2756-8 (paper); 148 pages + index

If geographic proximity is not a guarantee for friendlier ties, then Europe is the apt example for Israel. Like its immediate Arab neighbours, Europe has been a difficult customer. In the mid-1950s, peripheral diplomacy enabled David Ben-Gurion to leapfrog hostile neighbours and forge closer ties with countries or ethnic groups which were non-Arab, non-Muslim or both. Thus, Israel began to reach out and partly succeeded in winning over the non-Arab Turkey, imperial Iran, Kurds of Iraq and Maronite Christians in Lebanon. Neither Ben-Gurion nor his successor, however, could find such an option vis-à-vis the erstwhile Western Europe. While the hostility of the Eastern Bloc could be explained through the Cold War, the Western part and subsequently European Union defied any straightjacket depiction.

Western Europe’s historical linkages to the Jewish Diaspora are deep rooted and richer than that of the United States. Yet, rather than being an advantage, this legacy has proved to be a bane. The imperial interest of some of the member countries in the Middle East meant that from the very inception the European Union and its two forerunners – European Economic Community (EEC) and European Community (EC) – had to adopt a neutral stand. The limited friendliness towards Israel came to an abrupt end in 1973 when Arab countries imposed an oil embargo upon countries that were considered to be friendly towards Israel. Europe modified its policy overnight and, beginning with the Venice Declaration of June 1980, it articulated a position that was more sympathetic towards the Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. Thus, ‘Europe’s historical legacy, geographic proximity ... extensive network of political, economic and cultural ties’ were not reflected in its relations with Israel (p.6).

In the process, the EU began losing Israel’s trust and confidence, especially vis-à-vis the peace process. This is somewhat different from the marginalization of the erstwhile Soviet Union. By abruptly shutting down its embassy in Israel in the wake of the June 1967 war, Moscow had marginalised itself and ceased being a player in the Middle East peace process. The EU on the contrary continued its economic ties with Israel. However, its perceived pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian stands meant that Israel could not trust Brussels. While individual countries such Spain and Norway played hosts to the peace process, as a regional organization the EU remained unattractive to Israel’s foreign policy calculations. In short, Israel was marginal to the EU and the latter was marginal to the Jewish state.

It is within this broad and somewhat skewed picture that Sharon Pardo and Joel Peters examine the relations between Israel and the EU. As they aptly describe, it has been ‘a troubled ... [and] volatile relationship’ (p.2). Despite economically thriving, politically it has been marked by Israeli ‘disappointment, bitterness and anger.’ Robust economic relations and strong scientific cooperation ironically are accompanied by political distancing.

Various institutional set up established since the Madrid process such as Multilateral Arab-Israeli Talks, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the Barcelona Process) and the Union of Mediterranean got entangled with the vagaries of the peace process. Far from contributing to bridging the gap between the two sides, these institutions became victims to periodic Israeli-Arab violence and stalling of the peace process. Rather than working towards peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours, these EU institutions depended upon the peace process to progress. In the words of the authors, ‘it became impossible for the EU to separate future progress in the Barcelona Process from the fortunes of the Middle East peace process’ (p.39). This is true for other EU institutions and initiatives. Even Israel’s application for associate membership became hostage to the peace process. In sum, Israel could not depend upon the EU to promote the peace process but rather the latter would be a beneficiary of an Israeli peace with the Arabs.

While Israel ‘could no longer ... ignore European positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ (p.62) the European role in promoting the peace process has not been positive. Indeed as the authors aptly conclude, Israel ‘never fully recovered from the heavy shadow cast by the 1980 Venice Declaration’ (p.71). While full membership of the EU remains popular, for a vast majority of Israelis ‘good political relations with the EU are not essential for Israel’ (p.91).

Indeed, the second time postponement in November 2010 of the Mediterranean Union Summit scheduled to be held in Barcelona aptly exhibits the kind of relations that exist between Israel and the European Union. Far from promoting the Middle East peace process, the MU has become hostage to the complications of peace making. Time has come for the EU to define and focus its interest. Will it be a player in promoting the Middle East peace process or a hostage to it? Without such a clear understanding, the EU would continue to juggle around without making any significant impact. Uneasy Neighbors is a timely reminder of this dilemma facing the EU.

P R Kumaraswamy is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Honorary Director of MEI.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND.  Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy