Unlike any other region of the world, Europe has had the most intimate, impactful and longest-lasting relationship with contemporary Israel and its origins. With Judaism and Christianity’s founding and the Holy Land’s valuable strategic location, Europe’s rulers and popes established covetous connections with the land on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, especially the Galilee, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. Anti-Semitism, springing episodically from all corners of Europe, catalyzed Jewish migrations. European persecution of Jews marginalized their lives and ironically sustained communal survival. Both realities eventually led to the percolation and development in 19th century Europe of modern political Zionism.
Having made promises to Arabs, Jews, and one another during and after World War I, the British and French ultimately carved up the Middle East into trusteeships or Mandates for themselves, with the British governing Palestine until May 1948. Jewish immigration in the periods of the most significant growth, between 1882 and the founding of Israel, came primarily from European and Eastern European areas. While the Jewish national home grew significantly in Palestine before the beginning of WWII, the unique circumstances of the Holocaust had significance in generating the world’s sympathy for establishing Israel.
With the Arab economic boycott of Israel’s goods and services, denying its commercial outlets to proximate neighbors, Europe became and remains Israel’s primary trading partner. Since the 1960s, Israel has maintained a two-fold relationship with Europe: one that is bilateral between Israel and individual countries, and the second that connects Israel to the European community as a whole. The bilateral is heavily dependent on who the leader of a European country is at a particular moment and whether Israel is in competition with that country for commercial markets; the multi-lateral is frequently dependent upon international matters or specifically Middle Eastern regional issues.
During the Cold War, Israel found itself on the side of European democracies in their political struggles with Moscow. In the early 1950s, Germany provided valuable monetary reparations to individual Israelis and to the state. France, Britain and Israel colluded in the Suez War, which failed to bring down Egypt’s Nasser, but kept Israel aligned with both London and Paris in obtaining needed military supplies. Additionally, France provided Israel with the primary know-how and technology for building its nuclear weapons program. After the 1967 War, French President DeGaulle blistered Israel for starting a defensive war causing those bilateral relations to sour; by comparison his counterparts President Chirac in the mid-1990s and Sarkozy in the mid-2000s thoroughly embraced Israel. In the 1973 War, Europe as a whole shut down use of its airspace and airports for American resupply of Israel and issued a scathing statement against Israel, in large measure due to fears of loss of oil supplies from Arab oil producers.
Israel’s 1975 Free Trade Agreement with Europe went beyond trade to include cooperation in scientific matters and touched on possible exchange of technological know-how. The enlargement of the EU in the early 1980s that included Spain, Portugal and Greece slowed Israel’s trade with the Common Market because these countries directly competed with Israeli agricultural exports. In November 1995, Israel signed an Association Treaty with the European Community. Implementation of the Treaty was delayed in great measure until 2000 because of stark disagreements between EU countries as a whole and the Israeli Likud governments that had previously frozen the negotiation process with the Palestinians. Likewise in November 2015, the EU, in disagreement with Israel over management of the territories seeks to boycott goods and products produced in areas that it considers to be occupied. European countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Poland have tended to take more positive outlooks of Israel in general, while the Nordic countries, Holland and Portugal have been the most negative. And yet, any country in the future that wants to become part of the EU has to recognize the state of Israel and is required to open diplomatic relations with it.
At present, Israel has a deep interest in unfolding events in Europe. It is concerned about the safety and future of one million or more Jews who live across Europe; vexed by the rise of right of center political parties that contain high levels of intolerance toward minorities; worried about the increased numbers of anti-Semitic sentiments and attacks on Jewish institutions and property in different parts of Europe; and, troubled by the steady flow of Arab and Moslem migrations to Europe that could change the face of European politics and policies toward Israel over the next several decades. Still, European business and commercial interests and government institutions throughout the continent sustain robust relationships with Israeli counterparts. There are high value informational exchanges bubbling with technology, intelligence sharing on matters of national security and curbing terrorism, and in applied and pure research. Economically and commercially, EU countries remain terribly important for Israel because it is Israel’s number one trading partner.
Ken Stein November 2015
1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement
1917 Balfour Declaration
1922 League of Nations
1922 British Mandate for Palestine
1937 Peel Report
1939 White Paper
1952 Menachem Begin on Whether to Accept Reparations from Germany
1957 Eisenhower Doctrine
1980 Venice Declaration
1991 George Bush I Opening of the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference
2000 EU-Israel Association Agreement Comment
2003 Quartet Roadmap
2014 European Parliament Calls for Two States