European elections bring different challenges to Arabs, Israelis

Keen among the Arabs to engage the European Union are the Palestinians who fear a lack of Arab resistance to a scheme overseen by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Shifting politics. European Council President Donald Tusk holds a news conference after a European Union leaders summit following the EU elections, in Brussels, May 28. (Reuters)
Shifting politics. European Council President Donald Tusk holds a news conference after a European Union leaders summit following the EU elections, in Brussels, May 28. (Reuters)

The highest turnout in European Parliament elections for 20 years reflects a paradox of growing nationalism alongside a greater sense of continent-wide challenges. “People realised something was at stake here,” noted Margrethe Vestager, EU commissioner for Competition and possible successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as commission president.

Politicians will analyse the results of the May 23-26 vote for weeks, assessing their implications for Europe’s internal dynamics and for its role in the world. Crucially, these were the first European elections since the 2015 migrant crisis boosted the populist right.

Its best showing was in Italy, where the League took 34.3% of votes. League leader and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called for a Europe-wide coalition of populism focused on nationalist economics and curbing immigration. Salvini wants a new bloc in the 751-person parliament with the populist right’s 170 seats.

While the number of migrants dropped from 1.3 million in 2015 to 638,000 last year, migration remains a driver of populist right. NGOs active with rescue boats warn of the consequences of continuing violence in Libya, while Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey — as well as Afghans in Iran — may head for Europe if they see no future where they are.

Islamophobia remains in the mix, as some immigrants are more unwelcome than others. Salvini in early May told Hungarian television: “If we do not take back control of our roots, Europe will become an Islamic caliphate.”

The anti-Semitic background of many European right-wing parties has not stopped Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from putting out feelers. Netanyahu received a warm reception two years ago in Hungary from Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government has been accused of ignoring anti-Semitism.

Netanyahu’s outreach results in part from EU policies that Israelis dislike, said Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, co-president of the Israeli Association for the Study of European Integration and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“The average citizen is not so aware of the good things Europe brings to Israel, for example, the ‘Open Sky’ agreement [which, since 2013, has facilitated air travel between the European Union and Israel],” Sion-Tzidkiyahu said. “We hear constant criticism from the European Union about the government not taking steps towards a two-state solution. With the security situation, with the different intifadas and rockets from the Gaza strip, people don’t feel that the EU appreciates the threats Israel is facing.

“The EU is funding not just the Palestinian Authority but left-wing NGOs and Netanyahu keeps smashing at [emphasising] that. Netanyahu has partners within the European Parliament for ‘divide and rule’ or to weaken the EU and that would be Salvini’s group.”

There are Israelis uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s approach. “At a popular level, some in Israel, like Geert Wilders, who has a new political party [the Dutch Freedom Party] with no anti-Semitic background and who has spent time in a kibbutz,” Sion-Tzidkiyahu said, “but I don’t think anyone in Israel adores Marine Le Pen.”

While many Israelis look politically to the United States, links to Europe are strong — the European Union is Israel’s biggest trading partner.

“We have close relationships in research,” Sion-Tzidkiyahu said. “Israelis visit as tourists. We feel familiar there. Many Israelis are European, with about 55% entitled to EU passports.”

The European Union has long sought to develop trade not just with Israel but with Arab countries. It has Euro-Mediterranean Agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, while Turkey has had a customs union with the European Union since 1995. The European Union is the biggest trading partner of all these countries and of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Yet Arab leaders have done little to foster political relationships with the European Union or its political parties. At the first EU-Arab League summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh in February, there was a scant response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel declaring the “fate of the European Union depends to a significant degree on the fate of the countries of the Arab League.” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who could stay in office until 2030, informed the Europeans that his notion of human rights was as valid as theirs.

Keen among the Arabs to engage the European Union are the Palestinians. Riyad Mansour, Palestinian UN envoy, in May urged European officials to call an international conference reviving the two-state option if, as expected, the Trump administration’s peace plan, due to be unveiled June 25-26 in Bahrain, ditches Palestinian statehood.

Palestinian officials fear a lack of Arab resistance to a scheme, overseen by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, they see as a cover for Israel to extend settlements and absorb the West Bank in what Mansour called “apartheid.”

“The Israelis conduct extensive outreach campaigns and ‘dialogue’ with groups, parties and governmental institutions in Europe,” said an Arab security analyst in Brussels. “This isn’t the case with the Arabs, who see the EU mostly as a commercial partner. No one expects that to change with the European elections.”