An EU opportunity

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In 1995, Israel and the European Union (EU) entered into an Association Agreement which called for ministerial-level meetings between EU representatives and Israel at least yearly, at which issues of mutual concern were to be discussed. For a number of reasons, it took almost five years for the Association Agreement to be ratified. And then in 2013, Israel canceled further meetings in reaction to the EU’s promulgation of a policy that prohibited EU funding for or cooperation with an Israeli body that operates or has links beyond the Green Line.

But now, thanks to efforts by Israel’s prime minister, Yair Lapid, and support from EU leadership — particularly representatives of France — the freeze has thawed and Association Council meetings are back on track. The first meeting in a decade was held in Brussels earlier this week.

Among the issues scheduled for discussion were the war in Ukraine, the global energy crisis and food insecurity. EU representatives also made clear their interest in discussing the Middle East peace process, in the hopes of building on what they saw as encouraging remarks by Lapid during his recent United Nations address, in which he called a two-state solution “the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children.”

Historically, the friction between the EU and Israel has centered on various aspects of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. EU member nations overwhelmingly support a two-state solution and oppose Israeli settlements in the West Bank. There were also economic tensions, driven by Europe’s thirst for oil, and EU member deference to the historic antagonism of Arab oil states to Israel.

Much of that seems to have changed with the regional embrace of the Abraham Accords, a heightened need for Europe’s cultivation of alternative oil sources because of the war in Ukraine and the shift in Israel’s leadership from the hardline positions of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the more moderate positions of Lapid.

From the EU’s perspective, the stars may have aligned to offer an opportunity for a reboot of Europe’s relationship with Israel: Israel’s current leadership is receptive to the idea of a two-state solution, and Lapid is seen as a leader with whom they can pursue that approach. In addition, Israel has increasingly strong connections to and business relations with Arab oil producers, and is increasingly seen as a possible partner in Europe’s developing approach to a growing Russia-triggered energy crisis. Indeed, this past summer, Israel and Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding with the EU to boost gas exports.

All of that said, we hope that efforts toward renewed EU-Israel cooperation are not short lived. While the benefits of a meaningful joint effort are clear, there remain members of the EU who continue to vilify Israel and oppose rapprochement and there is the increasing likelihood that a less EU-sympathetic Netanyahu-led coalition will retake control of the government following next month’s elections. Both sides should therefore seize the current opportunity to create facts on the ground that strengthen EU-Israel relations.

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