Israel Pulse

Why Netanyahu quietly applauds Brexit

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must be pleased with Brexit, which will weaken the European Union and draw its attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tissues are not in great demand in Jerusalem these days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not shed any tears over the decision by the residents of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union. According to the rules of Israel’s zero-sum game in the international arena, the weaker the gentiles, the stronger the Jews. The greater the anxiety in Brussels, the lower the tensions in Jerusalem. The governments of Europe are competing with the US administration, goes the thinking in Jerusalem, for the championship of the Israel-haters league. The EU's clipped wings improve the prospects of removing from its agenda the European threat to thaw the diplomatic freeze with the Palestinians and freeze construction in the settlements.

As far as the prime minister is concerned, the timing of the shockwaves that rattled Europe could not have been better. It happened in the same month that France woke the long-dormant “peace process” that had been idle for more than two years, ever since Secretary of State John Kerry waved a white flag of surrender and folded up his peace initiative. This was also the month that an international conference took place in Paris, raising from the dead the problem of the Israeli occupation and its West Bank settlements. In June 2016, the European Council recorded in its minutes that 28 foreign ministers voted in favor of the French initiative and pledged to support it. Implementation of the Brexit decision will bring down the number to 27.

Britain is not simply 1/28th of the EU. The standing of the United Kingdom is not like those of Poland or Greece. Britain is one of two European permanent members of the UN Security Council and the closest and the most loyal partner of the United States on the continent. France, the EU’s second representative among the five permanent members, was very open about its efforts to thwart Brexit. The failure to stop it has eroded what was left of French President Francois Hollande’s popularity. Nor did the UK referendum help German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the third party in the top European leadership, recover from the Syrian refugee crisis. Her name, too, is included among the losers in the move.

Britain’s pullout will also damage the Middle East Quartet, whose members include the EU, the United States, Russia and the UN. Netanyahu has devoted significant efforts in recent weeks to soften the criticism of Israel’s policy in the territories contained in a special report compiled and soon to be published by the Quartet. A diplomatic source who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor this week that authors of the report were privy to a document prepared by foreign consular representatives in Jerusalem containing data about a marked increase in the extent of Israeli construction in the territories and human rights abuses against Palestinians. However, the Quartet’s report is expected to resonate less with the EU, busy licking the wounds of Britain’s amputation, and the United States busy with the most frenetic election campaign it has known in generations.

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Netanyahu may have reasons to celebrate Britain’s farewell to the EU. But ordinary Israeli citizens have no reason to cheer the downfall of the EU. The European Union is hostile to the policies of the Israeli government, not to the State of Israel, and proof can be found in the archives of the European Council of Ministers. In December 2013, the council proposed upgrading Israel’s ties with the EU to the status of special privileged partnership, the highest level that can be reached in the EU by a non-member state. The upgrade was supposed to include an “unprecedented” package of economic, diplomatic and defense aid for Israel, as well as for the Palestinian state that would be established at its side. The package includes better access to the European market, a strengthening of cultural and scientific ties, increased trade and investments by EU members, encouragement of cooperation between the European private sector and the private sectors in Israel and Palestine, a deepening of the diplomatic dialogue and defense cooperation with the two states.

The European package deal stands to provide thousands of jobs and an infusion of billions of dollars. All of this, of course, comes in addition to a significant improvement of Israel’s international and strategic standing. This generous offer was clearly not generated by a clandestine organization of lovers of Zion and members of pacifist clubs. International organizations are not in the habit of doling out freebies to developed countries like Israel. The resolution underscores that “the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a fundamental interest of the EU.”

The package comes with a price tag: a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The heads of the EU, like many Israelis, know that construction in the territories at the heart of the conflict does not advance the agreement. Over the past year they have not only issued press releases condemning the settlement enterprise, they have switched from words to actions. The first move was the EU’s decision to label settlement products. The next was a vote of support or abstention by EU member states on the UN Human Rights Council decision to endorse the compilation of a blacklist of companies operating in the settlements.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry rushes to issue sharp reactions to every negative word emanating from Brussels about the settlements. The prime minister rushes to protest a peace initiative originating on the European continent and insinuates that it reeks of anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, the incentive package that the EU offered Israel was greeted in Jerusalem with a yawn. The attitude of Israeli politicians toward Europe is basically “don’t do us any favors” — as long as they don't disturb us while we drag our feet in the peace process and accelerate the settlement project.

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Found in: united kingdom, middle east quartet, israeli-palestinian conflict, european union, brexit, benjamin netanyahu

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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