Lars Faaborg-Andersen left Israel at the end of August after a four-year stint as the European Union’s ambassador, lamenting the fact that, despite excellent bilateral ties, many Israelis still perceive Europe as a bastion of anti-Israel bias and antisemitism.
Europe-Israel relations are “rock solid,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, but the focus invariably is on the areas of disagreement, which account for no more than 15-20 percent of the relationship, in his estimation.
“I think it is kind of frustrating when we consider the track record we have of cooperation. And it’s not like we are at a standstill ‒ we are adding new areas of cooperation all the time, including most notably, I would say, anti-terrorism, which is a common threat to us and we have a lot to learn from each other,” he says.
“We have a lot to learn from Israel on many of the technical aspects of fighting terror and I think Israel might have something to learn from us on some of the social and political aspects of fighting terror, including issues such as deradicalization. So, I think, given the flourishing nature of our cooperation, it is frustrating to see us portrayed as being anti-Israel.”
In a farewell news conference in Tel Aviv, the Danish diplomat said there is not only a great misunderstanding on the part of Israelis over the role of the European Union, but also on EU policy and objectives.
Much of the friction concerns settlements as Brussels has been consistently critical of Israeli West Bank construction and insists that any agreement with Israel include a clause that excludes EU funding from reaching any Jewish community over the 1967 Green Line ‒ the West Bank, the Golan Heights or East Jerusalem. Indeed, Israel briefly suspended diplomatic discussions with the EU after Brussels decided to label goods imported from Jewish settlements.
Recently, there was tension over Israel’s demolition of a number of illegally built Palestinian structures in Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli control, which had been partially financed by the EU or EU-member states.
Faaborg-Andersen doesn’t attempt to deny the differences of opinion, but stresses that they mustn’t overshadow the mutually beneficial bilateral ties that have an immense impact on Israel.
“Europe remains Israel’s biggest trading partner, the biggest partner in science and technology, the biggest partner in transportation and, maybe in the future, the biggest partner in energy,” he says. “Israel remains the EU’s most significant partner in the region. This is why we have some difficulty understanding the perception that the EU is anti-Israel.
“When you look at the facts it’s very different. There is also criticism that we are engaged in boycotting Israel. How can people get that idea to square with the fact that we have 32 billion euros in mutual trade every year? The EU is the single biggest public funder of science and research in this country. This doesn’t sound like a boycott to me.”
If Israelis were aware of the true nature of the bilateral relationship, he says their perceptions of Europe would change – also when it comes to antisemitism.
“Antisemitism in Europe is a phenomenon we are combating ‒ even more than Israel is ‒ and we are actually taking very determined steps to do something about it, including through cooperation with Internet providers and closing down websites that have antisemitic content, and we actually have good results on this.”
More than five decades of trade, cultural exchanges, political cooperation and a developed system of agreements have cemented bilateral relations. The 28-member bloc (soon to shrink to 27 after Brexit) accounts for about one-third of Israel’s total trade, and it was the EU’s 24th ranked trade partner globally in 2015.
Furthermore, Israel was the first non- European country to be associated with the EU Framework Program back in 1996, and its participation in the various cooperation programs since has been a success story giving added value to both sides. Israel’s participation in the Horizon 2020 program, signed in 2014, for instance, enabled thousands of Israeli researchers and entrepreneurs to cooperate with their European and international counterparts in cutting-edge scientific projects.
More recently, the 2013 Open Skies agreement has opened up scores of European destinations for Israeli tourists with lowcost flights and turned Israel into a regional flight hub.
Faaborg-Andersen’s tenure in Israel included a war, elections and the frustration of ongoing diplomatic deadlock in attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
He warns that the breakdown of peace negotiations combined with ongoing settlement activity makes the prospects for a two-state solution increasingly impractical. The diplomatic deadlock, he warns, could have serious implications for Israel’s longterm security and Palestinian aspirations, creating a potentially dangerous reality that may be exploited by radical elements in the region.
The outgoing EU ambassador met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about 10 times during his four-year stint and the EU assumption is that the Israeli leader remains committed to the two-state solution, as he outlined in his policy speech at Bar-Ilan University in October 2013, although questions remain over what kind of Palestinian state he envisions.
Bilateral political cooperation thrives in a number of areas and includes ongoing efforts to ensure regional stability by bolstering Jordan and Egypt.
On the security front, Faaborg-Andersen acknowledges that Israel has provided real-time intelligence to European countries regarding the Islamic State threat. Two high-level Israel-EU anti-terrorism dialogues have taken place, and workshops have been held on deradicalization, terrorism financing and non-conventional terrorism, such as the cyber threat.
While sensitive to accusations of interfering in internal Israeli affairs, the ambassador has spoken out a number of times against Knesset legislation perceived either as damaging to peace prospects or anti-democratic. Two recent cases are the NGO transparency law that forced human rights groups that receive more than half their funding from abroad – including from European governments – to disclose it prominently in official reports and the law legalizing settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land.
Faaborg-Andersen believes Israeli decision makers pay attention when the EU voices concern.
“I’m sure because I know that Israel is taking into account the expected international reaction to various pieces of legislation that is put on the table in the Knesset. It was very clear during the whole discussion of the NGO transparency bill and, obviously, also when the issue of retroactive legalization of settlements on private Palestinian land was discussed.
“Of course, Israel is very attentive to what the international community thinks about what is going on here. So, I think it’s the duty of the international community, including on me as the representative of the EU, to let them know in advance what the likely reaction will be on such issues so they can take this into consideration. The worst thing would be if they weren’t aware that something would trigger a response. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called to the Knesset to discuss with different MKs exactly these issues. So, yes, indeed, I think people are listening.”
Faaborg-Andersen, who has returned to the Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen awaiting his next assignment, has been replaced by Italian diplomat Emanuele Giaufret as the EU’s new envoy.