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Israel can’t avoid the fallout from a disunited Europe

The National – 5 July 2016

There were no tears shed in the Israeli government over Britain’s vote last month to leave the European Union. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right blame Europe for many of Israel’s woes.

Internal wrangles about how to manage Brexit, they hope, will shift member states’ focus away from criticising Israel. The longer-term fallout could be a clamour from voters in other European countries to follow Britain’s lead. A weakened Europe, according to this theory, will be less effective as a counterweight to Washington, which invariably prefers Israel’s interests.

As an added bonus, a Europe with an uncertain future, and one where nativist sentiment makes identifiable minorities less welcome, could be boon to those, such as Mr Netanyahu, who believe Israel is the only true home for Jews.

Committed to beating the Palestinians in a battle of numbers, Mr Netanyahu already exploits every terror attack in Europe to urge Jews to move to Israel. Now he can milk rising racism too.

For these reasons Regavim, an organisation representing the illegal Jewish colonies in the occupied territories that enjoys close ties to the Netanyahu government, campaigned loudly for British Jews to back Brexit.

Sensing the danger, British prime minister David Cameron reassured the Jewish community shortly before the June 23 vote that Britain was “Israel’s greatest friend” and would be “powerless” to help if it left the EU.

The Israeli right is almost certainly misreading developments in Europe and beyond.

True, the EU has been a thorn in Mr Netanyahu’s side, especially since his government effectively quashed the Oslo peace process. Europe leads the diplomatic opposition to the settlements, and is introducing a labelling system to identify settler products.

Also, last month the French tried to revive the moribund peace process by dragging it out of Washington’s orbit. Later this year a Paris summit may give Europe the chance to embarrass Mr Netanyahu.

But the deeper reality is that the EU has been a loyal friend to Israel, and one almost as central to preserving its strategic interests as the United States.

The labelling of a few settlement items has done nothing to dent Europe’s role as Israel’s largest trading partner. While Washington has watched Israel’s back with military aid and tireless diplomatic support, the EU has created an economic haven for Israeli goods.

Trade, worth $5 billion, has doubled in the past decade. Israel also benefits from important EU research grants and cooperative projects.

In addition, Europe foots much of the bill for Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, effectively underwriting the costs of Israel’s occupation.

All of this would be in jeopardy if the Israeli right’s fantasy – of an EU collapse – actually occurred. But assuming the EU survives Brexit relatively unscathed, Britain’s absence will nonetheless be felt by Israel, as Mr Cameron warned.

Since the end of the Second World War, Britain has been Washington’s key ally in Europe – its eyes and ears. With Britain out of the EU, Washington fears its influence in the region will be diminished.

Calmer heads in Israel agree. They warn that EU countries more critical of Israel, especially Sweden, Ireland and Slovenia, will soon have a greater weight in discussions about whether and how to sanction Israel.

But Brexit should be a wake-up call to Israel for another reason. It is the latest symptom of a backlash among western voters against political elites seen as distant and unaccountable.

The anger has been directed not only at supranational bodies such as the EU but at domestic politics too. It is reflected in polarised debates about issues that were once embraced by a safe consensus, as well as the rise of radical challengers, of the right and left, to the old order.

In Britain, the established left and right are beset by insurrections: Jeremy Corbyn has fought to make the Labour Party more accountable to its base, while the right has been destabilised by the rapid rise of the anti-immigrant party, UKIP.

Parallel developments are obvious in other European states – and in the United States. Donald Trump successfully smashed the rule of the Republican establishment, and Bernie Sanders came within a hair’s breadth of doing the same to the Democrats.

This has revived an interest in politics among those who long felt disempowered. In the long run, that can only be harmful to Israel.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that western voters deeply distrust Israel, with only North Korea and Iran more disliked. The conflict with the Palestinians is seen as a sore fuelling an Islamic extremism that poses an ever greater threat.

The grass roots boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has bypassed local politicians. It is slowly turning the Palestinians into a cause for international solidarity equivalent to the popular campaign against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

Brexit is a warning sign that western leaders will pay a price if they continue overlooking popular concerns. Israel would be foolish to assume that it can remain immune indefinitely from the upheavals consuming Europe and the US.

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