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European Friends of Israel: Bilateral Challenges in a Global Context

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:31

Elinadav HeymannBy Elinadav Heymann, Director of Political Affairs, European Friends of Israel

One of the most common observations from visitors to Israel is how “European” it feels. Let us be correct:  It’s unmistakably Israel, unmistakably Jewish and yet, take a walk in Tel Aviv, or around Mamila shopping district in Jerusalem and it feels like, well, Europe. The reason for this is simple. Israel’s people share more in common culturally and democratically with the EU than with its closest neighbors.  Travel across the border to Jordan, or Syria and you are – unmistakably in the Middle-East.

Israel shares common bonds with the EU, socially, economically and politically.  Sadly, because of our unique position in the world these bonds are often not recognized, or worse simply ignored.  At its most basic level, my work as European Friends of Israel Political Director, and that of my dedicated team, is to highlight these bonds, build on them and ultimately cement them.

Our mission is simple: Israel needs greater EU support for the continuing challenges it faces over the coming years.

But it’s not all one way traffic.  EFI seeks to improve and foster an environment in which both Israel and the EU’s commercial interests are enhanced and prospered. We aim to increase the number of Europeans who share our aims and we encourage them to take individual political action. EFI, however, differs from the classic pro-Israel grassroots NGOs model in once crucial aspect:

As EFI focuses mainly on elected political representatives, it brings together every Israel friendly parliamentary group from across the 27 EU Member States, together with a core of support within the European Parliament from every political hue. With some one thousand members of Parliament from all of Europe’s mainstream political parties, this makes us one of the largest pan-European parliamentary groups of its kind.

The National Parliaments network of EFI includes all the chairmen of the main Parliamentarian Israel-friendship associations across Europe – a network that we have worked hard to foster. The Political Board of EFI at the European Parliament includes Members of the European Parliament who hold remarkably high levels of diplomatic skills and experience.

EFI is chaired by Marek Siwiec MEP (Poland, S&D) former Vice President of the European Parliament. The Members of the Political Board of EFI come from different political and geographical backgrounds. Each on has his own motivation for taking part in EFI’s activity.

One of them is Helga Trupel MEP (Germany, Greens), the vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee: “I am a friend of Israel because after the crimes committed by Nazi Germany I feel that the existence and security of the state of Israel is my political responsibility. I support a two state solution, with a democratic Palestinian and a democratic Jewish state of Israel serving as the basis for peace in the Middle East.

Israel is today one of the most intriguing and fascinating countries in the world. With its population of the various origins it is equally characterized by an open debate in the press, conflicts between secular and ultra orthodox Jews, women’s emancipation, advanced research and development as well as by the unsolved political conflicts. All this turns Israel into a micro cosmos revealing a large variety of conflicts and cleavages shaping our modern societies.”

As part of EFI’s public activity, MEP Trupel Hosted Member of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) Dr Einat Wilf, who spoke on women’s rights in Israel in the conference held in European Parliament in April.

On a different side of the Political spectrum you can find Alejo Vidal-Quadras MEP (Spain, EPP), Vice President of the European Parliament:  ”Our headlines are currently dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over occupied territories, settlements and stalled negotiations. Externally, Israel is neighbour to fledgling democratic countries and feels threatened by the nuclear regime of a bordering nation. These amount to complex geostrategic and political issues and Israel needs friends, not enemies, in order to tackle them.

As part of my work with the European Friends of Israel group inside the European Parliament, I recently had the pleasure of hosting a conference on Iran, the bomb and its implications not just for Israel, but also for the European Union. This reminded me of the close democratic and cultural values that the EU shares with Israel and, in turn, the great potential for assisting one another. Israel is a valued trading partner and a crucial colleague in the fields of science and technology. The EU, currently privileged with comparative stability, can lend its support in restarting the bilateral peace talks and uniting against enemies who threaten Middle Eastern stability and democratic rule of law.

The EU-Israel Association Agreement has been in place since 2000, and has been built upon by the 2005 Action Plan, but there is much progress still to make. In future co-operation with Israel, the following are vital: dialogue, a continued commitment to democracy and prioritizing peace-building and human rights.”

Hannu Takkula MEP (Finland, ALDE) states: “I grew up not only as a friend of Israel but I was expected to appreciate all human beings. During the course of my political career, first as a member of the Finnish Parliament, and since 2004 as a member of the European Parliament, my position with regards to Israel has become stronger and my reasons better defined. I cannot see any reason not to be a friend of Israel; instead there are a host of reasons to be one. I will here mention just the main ones.

First, there is a clear historical justification for the statehood of Israel. As a question of justice, Israel has the distinct right to exist. This justification, grounded on historical and juridical reasons, is a cause which I sincerely support.

Secondly, the values which I as a European wish to uphold and enhance, originate from a source which is distinctly Jewish. As a result, Europeans and Israelis share the same core values. These values include: respect for human dignity, religious freedom, freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law and the juridical system to go with it. I support Israel in its attempts to maintain these values and to design its policy and praxis accordingly. “

These three members’ motivations are just a few supportive views within a rich tapestry that has been created by our parliamentarians. Other members of the board include Frederique Ries MEP (Belgiumm ALDE) and Bastiaan Belder (Netherlands, EFD). Like the differing political parties that they represent, no two views are the same, other than a steely determination to see Israel continue to succeed.

As always there are challenges ahead, arguments to win and awareness to be raised.  It would be remiss of me to paint a picture of perfect European Parliamentary solidarity with the State of Israel. Far from it, the EU institutions can waver between support, indifference and outright hostility towards Israel.

My Job is to take this fluctuating political pulse and, working with the parliamentarians, suggest and co-ordinate initiatives that can lead to parliamentary support for Israel. For Instance, Israel, as a world leader in medicines and other pharmaceutical products is currently seeking a technical trade agreement with the EU that would lead to cheaper products for EU citizens – the ACAA agreement. In these times of Austerity, where cutbacks are biting into health service provision, this is a win-win for Israel and Europe. However, some MEPs are seeking assurances that no products from disputed territories should come onto the European Market.  This is a delicate negotiation and we seek to bring together representatives from the State of Israel and our Parliamentarians, to find common ground and ensure this trade deal is ratified.

We work on counter boycott strategies, Pr initiatives. We invite Parliamentarians from Israel to share ideas and exchange information; we organize conferences, hearings and exhibitions. We seek nothing other than fair hearing for the State of Israel and its people. But there is always more to do.

Iran in particular is an area where we need to up our game. We believe that many countries are sleepwalking into a situation where Iran will have nuclear capabilities. With a President who has vowed to wipe Israel off the map, this is more than just political posturing and rhetoric: a nuclear armed Iran represents a very real existential threat to Israel.

Our job in the coming weeks is to increase the political pressure on Iran to back down. Nobody in Israel wants a war. Nobody in Europe wants to see one either.

EFI then, is something completely different. We do not seek a homogenous supportive position towards Israel or blind obeisance to the Israeli government line. Instead we seek and positively welcome differing views, differing positions and differing voices that all contribute, like instruments in an orchestra, to a harmonious ensemble of support. Each Parliamentarian brings his or hers own sound to the narrative. Sometimes it gets noisy, sometimes it may sound a little off key, and sometimes it all comes together beautifully. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

How very European don’t you think?