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The Young Diplomats Forum (YDF) is a unique program that brings together young diplomats from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and representatives from European embassies. Representatives from other Israeli line ministries, who are dealing with international affairs, were also invited and present. The overall goal is to strengthen the Israeli-European connections and to facilitate a change in perspectives. Common challenges shall be addressed in discussions on a regular basis. The Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) serves as the forum’s coordinating platform, whose President is Ambassador Avi Primor, once representing Israel in Germany. KAS Israel supports the project with a great interest, convinced that the European idea will be promoted throughout the younger generation.
Integration Leading to Freedom
Before the participants were diving into the current status of and perspectives on the Israeli-European relationship, Nadine Mensel, project assistant with KAS Israel, introduced the audience to the history and the polity of the European Union. In particular, she emphasized the value of freedom that is an important characteristic of Europe’s integration project. The “four freedoms” of the internal market are proof to this value consisting of the free movement of:
- People (less/no border controls, right of establishment)
- Goods (no tariffs and quota within the EU)
- Services (liberalization of the energy, transport and communications markets)
- Capital (integration of the financial markets, liberalization of the trade in securities).
Mutual perceptions and misunderstandings
Based on those introductory remarks, Dr. Sharon Pardo from the Center for the Study of European Politics and Society (CSEPS) at the Ben-Gurion University analyzed the mutual perceptions and misunderstandings Israelis and Europeans might have developed in their relationship. Dr. Pardo drew from elaborated opinion polls, qualitative interviews and media analyses.
On the one side his results indicated towards a sound and diversified relationship, especially in the field of culture and economy. But it was also clear that Israel and the United States remain very close in political terms. Moreover, many of the interviewees expressed their concern that Europe was currently experiencing a new wave of anti-Semitism more and more originating from Muslim communities. In addition, European positions in the field of foreign policy were oftentimes disagreeable to Israelis. They perceive the EU as a weak actor that lacks the ability to speak with one voice. Even the new arrangements of Lisbon Treaty – High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European External Action Service – did not abolish parallel structures so far. In the panel discussion afterwards, this aspect was further elaborated.
How big is the appetite for Europe?
The speakers’ statements centered around the quality of the EU’s and Israel’s approximation. What are the benefits for each side, where would be the chances and where the obstacles to an advanced cooperation? The first to answer was Dr. Pardo who presented the Israeli perspective. He argued that in principle a willingness to extend the cooperation could be observed. What was missing though is a “Grand Strategy” related to Israel’s foreign policy. In that regard, the leading politicians in the country fail to deliver clear messages. Another construction site is related to the acquis communautaire (the entire legal basis of the EU). In the case of an actual integration or a similar outcome the national legislation would need to be adjusted to the acquis. But before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not solved such an endeavor is absolutely unrealistic.
Ambassador Andrew Standley, head of the EU delegation to Israel, could not agree more. In 2008, the negotiations to upgrade that relationship (to the status of an association) revealed the difficulties in the matter. Nevertheless, Amb. Standley pointed to the many fields where Israelis and Europeans have become engaged so actively: in cultural affairs, the sciences and academia, in high-tech industries. Because the two sides share a lot of interests in those areas, the cooperation should by all means be intensified, and the ambassador would be happy to promote that idea in Israel.
Ambassador Tzipora Rimon, director of the Department for Multilateral European Institutions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, welcomed such a commitment. At the same time, she stressed the fact that Israel would not only focus on Europe. “Looking east” is likewise important and a strategic imperative in the long run. However, Amb. Rimon expressed her hope that more value was added to the Israeli-European relationship. Reaching agreements beyond mostly economic and trade-related questions was the important task.
The representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in the Palestinian Territories, Felix Dane, shared this view. Being a former head of the office of a member of the European Parliament in Brussels (Jürgen Schröder from the European People’s Party), Mr. Dane could touch on the European perspective. He explained that the EP was not necessarily pushing for a stronger cooperation between Israel and the EU. Unfortunately, many parliamentarians were not aware of what could be gained, but frustrated with Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, especially the ongoing construction of settlements. Hence, appeals to boycott Israeli goods found increasingly supporters. Consequently, a solution to the Middle East conflict remained the crux of the matter, if Israel and Europe were to move closer together.
In the following feedback session, the current within the EU was of special interest to the audience. The young diplomats were worried that a renationalization could be the outcome of the crisis. In that case, the Union would run the risk of loosing sight of the European idea. The discussants on the panel could not argue against such concerns entirely. That is why an initiative like the Young Diplomats Forum might serve to facilitate a better mutual understanding, to clarify misperceptions, and to vigorously support the idea of Europe throughout the European states and Israel as well.