Why EU fears for Israeli democracy

EU officials are preparing a list of demands designed to stop the flow of Israeli anti-democratic legislation and statements.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, speak to the media following their meeting in Jerusalem, May 20, 2015. Photo by DAN BALILTY/AFP/Getty Images.
Uri Savir

Uri Savir


Topics covered

two-state solution, transparency, ngo, knesset, democracy, benjamin netanyahu, arab israelis

Jul 24, 2016

Alarm bells went off at European Union headquarters after the Knesset approved July 11 the transparency bill, which mandated that Israeli nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than half of their income from foreign funds must disclose this in any report or contacts with government officials. The fact that left-wing, pro-peace and human rights organizations are targeted by the Israeli government is seen in Brussels as an affront to Israel’s already flawed democracy. There are those at EU headquarters who are beginning to question the preferential treatment of Israel. They note that countries have to adhere to democratic standards in order to enjoy their preferential agreements with the EU (such as in the area of scientific research).

A senior official close to Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the EU leadership in Brussels and in its main capitals is extremely concerned with this Knesset legislation and with other signs that Israel's democracy is deteriorating.

The official named several other examples, starting with revelations of past racist expressions by the new IDF Chief Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim about the right of Israeli soldiers to rape non-Jews during wars — statements described by the EU official as an Islamic State-like worldview. The decision to go ahead with the nomination of the rabbi is severely criticized in Brussels.

The official also referred to racist legislation efforts by the government, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Nationality Law (emphasizing Israel's Jewish character) or the disbarment bill designed to oust Arab Knesset members. He noted that such laws should be taboo in any democracy.

The EU, said the official, is concerned with the curtailing of freedom of the press and of speech by the monopolization of media outlets orchestrated by the prime minister. This, he argued, touches at the very heart of democracy.

The official criticized racist rhetoric by several Israeli ministers, such as Avigdor Liberman, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Yariv Levin — rhetoric considered disturbing from a European-democracy-defending point of view.

The official added to this list the impact of the occupation on Israel’s internal democracy. The curtailing of basic human rights by the army is, in his view, “imported” into Israel by a government that believes in the power of using force and ignoring the value of equality. The EU official said that Europe today is equally worried by the flaws in Israel’s democracy as it is by the stalemate in the peace process. In his view, this could have negative repercussions for longer term EU-Israel relations.

Against the backdrop of these concerns, EU officials are now in the process of preparing a list of demands in relation to Israel’s democracy to be presented to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in the foreseeable future. These demands, spelled out in diplomatic language, will include abolishing the transparency bill, guaranteeing full equal rights for the Arab minority (the EU is ready to assist in social and educational projects in the Israeli Arab sector), halting the approval process of the nationality bill (placing Israel’s Jewish identity above its democracy), refraining in general from any racist legislation and entering a two-state solution process based on the 2016 French initiative and the 2002 Arab initiative.

According to the senior EU official, these positions will be presented to Israel orally in Brussels and Jerusalem: “Brussels does not want to interfere in domestic Israeli issues. Israeli democracy is up to Israel. The EU wants to ensure that Israel remains committed to its democratic values in order to justify to all its members the preferential agreements that Israel enjoys with the EU. The two-state solution is a strategic interest of all European countries.”

On these issues, according to the official, there is European consensus. Apparently German chancellor Angela Merkel is concerned and enraged by these latest developments, especially the transparency bill, which affects many major German foundations (supporting Israeli NGOs).

It appears that in the coming weeks, the EU office for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will do its utmost to impress upon Israel the seriousness of a possible deterioration in EU-Israel relations and to quell the voices in the EU, mainly by socialist parliamentarians who are demanding that the EU’s future agreements with Israel be linked to the level of Israel’s democracy.

In Washington, similar criticism was expressed on the transparency bill. State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing July 12 that the administration is deeply concerned of “the chilling effect that this new law could have on NGO activities. As the president has made clear, a free and functional civil society is essential.”

Jerusalem is aware of these European sentiments and criticism. A senior Foreign Ministry official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu is not taking the European warning seriously. In Netanyahu's view, so he explained, the EU is hypocritical — it does not criticize other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, for serious human rights abuses and totalitarian regimes. The official added, “There is a serious European double standard led by the more leftist and pro-Palestinian parties as part of an effort to delegitimize Israel. The government has no intention of changing any of its legislation because of EU criticism. The EU would do better to deal with the terror attacks happening on its ground.”

But Israel would do very well to listen to the EU concerns. They do not emanate from enemies, but from genuine friends of Israel, such as Merkel and French President Francoise Hollande.

In the end, this is not about Europe, but about Israel’s very identity as a Jewish democracy. It’s in Israeli strategic interest to adhere to its own values of the 1948 Declaration of Independence and to maintain a Jewish majority based on a two-state solution.

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