Students of the Department of International Relations and European Studies had the chance to attend a two-week course on the relationship between Europe and Israel taught by Professor Alfred Tovias. In his discussions with the students, the world-renowned expert from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem focused primarily on the possibility of closer ties between the Jewish state and the EU in the future and on the relationship of the Israelis to the old continent. His course also included two seminars with leading Israeli diplomats.
How important is the EU as a partner for Israel?
Today, the European Union is undoubtedly Israel’s most important trading partner. The EU is where approximately 35 to 40 percent of total imports come from, especially machinery and consumer goods. As regards exports, the main business partner is always either the EU or the US, depending on the year. The United States are Israel’s most important partner in the service industry, but it is important to note here that services represent a considerably smaller part of the overall revenue.
I’m asking you because they say that relations with the US or emerging markets are more important for Israel than its relations with Europe.
I don’t think so. Of course there has been an increase in trade with emerging markets, but that’s true for all Western countries. So, you cannot really say that these markets are more important partners than the European or American markets. The position of the EU and the US has traditionally been so strong and our relations with them so important, that it has become something of a routine, which might make it easier to forget for some people. And I just remembered another area of partnership that I haven’t yet mentioned – tourism. More than 40 percent of foreign visitors come to Israel from Europe; Americans are a minority among the tourists. However, it’s true that in direct investment, the US is the main investor in the Israeli market, while Europe doesn’t play an important role in this respect.
Politically, relations between the European Union and Israel have been frozen since 2010. Is there any hope that this could change in the near future?
It’s true that they are frozen. The Action Plan based on Israel’s request to be included in the European Neighbourhood Policy was suspended in 2009 due to Israel’s military intervention in the Gaza Strip. Paradoxically, however, our economic relations keep improving. For example, Europe and Israel have lately signed an “open skies” treaty, while the agreement to open up agricultural trade between the EU and Israel has been in force since 2010. Besides aviation and agriculture, cooperation has also been on the increase in industry as well as research and development. Israel was very active in the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Framework Programme of the EU and now participates also in the new Horizon 2020 programme.
Attitudes to Israel vary greatly within the European Union. What does the Israeli public think about the EU?
I would say that people don’t have enough information on this topic and are often confused. The public thinks that the biggest partner of Israel in all areas is by far the US, which isn’t true, as I have already pointed out. The attitude towards the US seems to be more positive in the long term. However, if you asked the average Israeli whether Israel should become part of the European Union, the answer would be an unequivocal “yes”. In Israel, the EU is by far the most positively perceived international institution, as opposed to, say, the UN. And Germany, the “leader” of the European Union, is nowadays really seen as a prominent friend of Israel.
However, the EU often and quite strongly expresses its support of Palestinian autonomy. What do Israelis think about that?
Obviously, they are not exactly happy about it; they feel that Israel bears the brunt of the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is presented in the media. But this negative influence has lately been pushed out of the media due to new problems in the Middle East involving neither Israel nor Palestine. Our conflict is now generally less often in the news, as Europe is busy dealing with other things, such as the Islamic State or the refugee crisis.
Many Israelis have strong personal or professional ties to European states. How important is this in shaping Israel-EU relations?
Especially younger Israelis have a much clearer idea of what modern Europe is like, because they travel a lot. Obviously, globalisation plays a role in this as well: it is much easier to learn about something at a distance through the media or social networks. It also helps that a number of people study at international universities or outside Israel. The popularity of European Studies as a discipline has also been on the rise. And Israelis learn European languages much more often now. Besides, elements of European cultures quite logically permeate Israeli culture. In my opinion, they are actually stronger than anything else.
Where some people see a strong Americanisation of Israeli culture, I see rather its Europeanisation. The process of Americanisation is just the same in Israel as it is in most European countries. It really is a myth that Israel is basically just another American territory. In many ways, we are in fact much closer to Europe.