Five questions – five answers: Israeli perceptions of Europe

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A public opinion poll compiled by Dr. Sharon Pardo, Jean Monnet Chair in European Studies at Ben-Gurion University, and published in mid-July 2011 yielded a number of notable results about current Israeli perceptions of Europe and European leaders.

Dr. Pardo, the most striking result is that 81% of Israelis would support EU membership of their country. How do you explain that surprising outcome?

First of all some words of caution. Israeli perceptions are often analyzed as if Israel were a single, coherent, unified society. This is clearly not the case. Various sectors of Israeli society hold differing views on the EU, and differences exist within each sector as well. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify certain perceptions that are widely shared by the Israeli public.

Indeed there is a widespread perception amongst Israelis that the EU represents a hospitable framework for Israeli accession, and therefore that Israel should seek membership of the EU within the foreseeable future. This perception is driven by Israelis' hopes, desires and by their expectation of the possibility of joining the Union. Also a number of Israeli politicians share the public’s position that Israel is in a position to, and should, seek EU membership in the near future. Among these politicians we can name the Israeli Foreign Minister and some Members of Knesset. Israel is also considered to be a natural candidate for EU membership also by some European leaders, among them the Italian Prime Minister.

This perception that the EU represents a hospitable framework for Israeli accession, and therefore that Israel is ready and should join the EU within the foreseeable future is, easy to understand. Such a perception can be best explained by Israeli wishful thinking. What is more surprising is the degree to which senior Israeli officials as well as European leaders, policy-makers and others who are familiar with the workings of the EU cling to this idea. Proponents of Israeli membership of the EU ignore fundamental incongruities between Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state and the state of the Jewish people, on the one hand, and the guiding principle of the EU of an open and unified space. Israel is a liberal state, but Israel's self-definition as a Jewish state and the state of the Jewish people makes it exceptional and radically different from other states.

How does that positive attitude go with the EU’s less favourable image in Israel when it comes to its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? According to a recent public opinion poll supported by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung ( a majority of Israelis (64%) think the position of the EU countries regarding the peace process is closer to the Palestinian position.

I will give a very short answer to this important question. The fact that Israelis have a very favorable image of the European Union and the fact that they want to be part of the European integration project have nothing to do with the fact that Israelis also see the Union in a critical manner.

But don’t you think Israelis are not really aware that being a member state of the EU means you have to share, or rather give up, national sovereignty? Would they really be prepared to accept that consequence?

Obviously we posed these questions to our interviewees. We were very surprised of the general knowledge of Israelis on the EU. When we compare our results with Eurobarometer findings we reveal that generally speaking the average Israeli knows about the EU more than the average European. Thus, the average Israeli knows what it means for a country to join the EU. Yet, we asked the question again after we gave our interviewees a general introduction on the topic, and still the level of support was very very high – 72% of the general public.

You also found that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the most popular European leader, with a favourable rating of 55%, and that Germany comes third in popularity behind Italy and Britain. What are the reasons?

It is very clear that the findings of the poll demonstrate that the deep Israeli-German bond remains very strong and that Germany and Chancellor Merkel are seen as close friends and allies of this country. I am sure that the important work that organisations such as the KAS, as well as higher education institutions and other civil society actors, are doing both in Israel and in Germany are some of the main motives behind these findings. Israelis are well aware of the fact that both Chancellor Merkel and the German people will always stand up for Israel's security and existential interests in the EU and in other international fora. That is why the relationship between Israel and Germany will always be of a special nature.

Thank you very much Dr. Pardo.

The questions were asked by Michael Mertes. July 17, 2011