An MEP who leads the European Parliament’s Israel delegation has said that is “unbearable” that there is “no real political dialogue” between Israel and the EU.
Antonio López-Istúriz, a conservative Spanish MEP, was elected to chair the delegation in September 2019 and has become a campaigner for improved ties with Israel and against antisemitism in Europe.
He spoke to the JC ahead of his attendance at the European Jewish Association’s annual policy conference held earlier this week to discuss the future of Europe's Jews.
Israel has experienced strained relations with Brussels over the past few years, and gave the cold shoulder to previous foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini who was perceived in Jerusalem as overly disposed towards Iran, but a recent change at the top of the European Commission and Israeli elections next week have opened up the possibility of a shift in approach.
Despite this, Mr López-Istúriz said that “neither the government of Netanyahu has made any efforts, neither the European Union has made any efforts”.
The MEP of the centre-right Partido Popular is also the Secretary General of the European People’s Party, the largest bloc in the European Parliament, and will shape the EU's approach to the Middle East over the coming five years.
Mr López-Istúriz, who has been working on EU-Israel relations since 2014, explains the freeze in Israel-EU relations with reference to his personal bugbear: “the ideological left”.
“There has been a change in the left in Europe”, he says, “now the left is absolutely pro-Palestinian, even reasonable people.”
“There has been a radicalisation,” he says.
Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s left-wing Deputy Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn are two of many “clearly anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish political forces” that are on the march across Europe, Mr López-Istúriz says.
“There has been a radicalisation,” he adds, listing Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos, the left-wing Spanish party that has entered into a governing coalition in Madrid, as examples. “They are clearly anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish political forces.”
According to Mr López-Istúriz, the European’s Union’s new High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Spanish Josep Borrell, shares some of this ideological baggae and this could spell further bad news for EU-Israel relations.
“Borrell is a very interesting example, in his youth he was in a kibbutz, but then he made a turn to the left. He is a breathing example of what we are talking about: someone who knew the realities of the kibbutz and the struggle of Israel to survive.”
Mr Borrell, who has been the EU’s top diplomat since December and is commonly seen as a critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he described in 2018 as possessing a “warlike arrogance”, has been crucial in setting the tone for the EU’s Middle East policy – which has been criticised as timid.
“If it were up to him things would stay as they are,” Mr López-Istúriz believes, adding that “there has to be pressure” on Mr Borrell.
Strains in EU-Israel relations have not been all down to Brussels, however, and from Mr López-Istúriz’s vantage point, “the successive government of Benjamin Netanyahu have not been particularly interested” in building deeper ties.
“The Israeli government has neglected the rise of Brussels,” he says, “and this is a mistake. They have to understand that Brussels is increasingly the centre of action and decisions in European politics.”
“There has to be more action, more activity, more understanding,” he continues, saying that he believes the outgoing Israeli government has ignored advice from its diplomats about to prioritise the EU.
Mr López-Istúriz is hoping for a change in attitude from Jerusalem after next week’s elections. Even if Mr Netanyahu is re-elected, “maybe he might change his position towards Brussels – we both belong to two religions that believe in miracles”.
Building better relations with Israel “is difficult with the left acting as a tower that is always seeking to boycott whatever initiative there is. They are not helping. It is a big problem for all of us,” he says.
In recent years, Spain has seen a proliferation of municipal boycott campaigns inspired by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. They have been led by Podemos, the left-wing coalition partner of the governing Socialist Party.
Mr López-Istúriz said he was concerned that “these declarations against the State of Israel, the recognition of Israel, the anti-Jewish statements, always come from the far left in Spain”.
He added that the rise of neo-fascist Vox should not make Spanish Jews uneasy, “I am not a member of Vox, but I have to say I have not heard from Vox any declarations against the state of Israel or the Jewish community.”
In April 2018, the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias hosted a discussion on his programme broadcast on an Iran-funded channel in which guests voiced antisemitic conspiracy theories. This month, Podemos councillors in southern Spain sought to ban “Jewish” individuals from taking-up government posts.
“I thought that antisemitism was not returning to Europe”, he says, “I have to admit now that there is something going on.”
Mr López-Istúriz has been one of the EU’s fiercest critics within the European Parliament on its efforts to tackle antisemitism and wrote a letter to the Commission in January asking why the EU had not done more to prevent the growth of Jew-hate.