PARIS — European sources told Al-Monitor on Friday that Israel’s President Isaac Herzog will travel to Brussels on Jan. 25 for a two-day visit. It will be the first Israeli official visit to the European Union headquarters since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office, and comes at a time of uncertainty in the relationship.
Herzog is set to address the European Parliament on Jan. 26, marking the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which officially falls on Jan. 27. Herzog will meet with heads of the European Commission and other senior European officials. The president is also expected to meet with the leadership of the Belgian Jewish community.
Herzog will be arriving to Brussels just two days after a visit there by Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh. The premier was invited by European Union Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, on the occasion of the monthly meeting of European foreign ministers. As he was invited by Borrell and not by the Swedish EU presidency, Shtayyeh will be hosted for lunch with the ministers for what has been described as an informal exchange of views.
The Palestine lobbying group within the European Parliament is expected to meet Jan. 22 at the parliament’s other building in Strasbourg, France. The French Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor that Shtayyeh is not expected to stop in Strasbourg on his way to Brussels.
Israel’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Eli Cohen spoke on the phone with Borrell Thursday. Cohen reportedly welcomed the advancements made in recent months to improve Israel-EU relations such as last October's convening of the Israel-EU Association Council for the first time in a decade. Cohen said that the meeting reflected the positive dynamics in ties between the sides. The council is the legal framework for relations and is supposed to meet once a year to reexamine goals and cooperation domains.
In the conversation, Borrell reiterated the EU positions supporting the two-state solution and against any unilateral actions that could hinder it. He also expressed his concern over the high numbers of Palestinian fatalities in IDF West Bank raids in recent weeks. The two agreed to meet as soon as possible, perhaps during the Munich Security Conference set to convene in Germany mid-February.
Cohen took his time calling Borrell. In his first week at office, he spoke with his American, Russian, Emirati and Greek counterparts, but did not contact any of the European powers. In his second week on the job, he spoke with the EU commissioner responsible for enlargement, Oliver Varhely, as well as his British, German, Austrian, Dutch and Estonian counterparts. As of Friday, Cohen had not yet spoken with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.
Relations between Netanyahu and the EU leadership have been tense over the past decade. Netanyahu had privileged his relationships with Euroskeptic leaders such as Hungary’s Victor Orban over dialogue with Brussels. Relations became especially tense in 2020, when Netanyahu advanced the possibility of annexing parts of the West Bank.
Jerusalem has long considered Borrell, a stout supporter of Palestinian statehood, as biased and he was never invited to Israel for an official visit. Still, despite his strong opinions on the Palestinian issue, and in contrast to other European leaders, Borrell did not officially condemn the controversial visit last month by National security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to the Temple Mount, in what could be considered an effort to keep a channel of dialogue open between Brussels and the Netanyahu government.