Israel’s interest in the election, one diplomatic official said, is that the parliament be “as least anti-Israel as possible.”
Jerusalem has little expectation that the elections to the European Parliament that begin Thursday and run through Sunday will have much of an impact on Israeli-European ties, even as European Jews are warily eyeing what is expected to be the strengthening of right-wing populist parties.
“I don’t think there is anyone who is watching this with bated breath, as if it will alter our fate,” one Israeli official commented. “This is not the elections for the US president, or even for the chancellor of Germany or president of France, in regard to its impact on us.”
Voters in the Netherlands and the UK will take to the polls on Thursday, the first of some 500 million Europeans in 28 countries eligible to vote for the European Parliament, which has some 751 members and divides its time between Brussels, Belgium and Strasbourg, France.
The UK will vote, since Brexit has not yet passed and it remains a member of the EU.
Israel’s interest in the election, one diplomatic official said, is that the parliament – which he described as a highly critical, though not hostile, forum for Israel – be “as least anti-Israel as possible,” and that it keep to a minimum the negative reports and condemnations it issues against the Jewish state.
And that, he said, will depend on the personal makeup of the next parliament.
“The current European Parliament is critical toward Israel, but it is under control,” the official said. “It is not a hostile body. They tend to make a distinction, wisely, between criticism of Israel’s diplomatic policy – the settlements, the Palestinians and the territories – and bilateral cooperation, which they understand benefits them.”
The official added that the parliament is more sympathetic toward Israel than EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who is to be replaced this year, “in the sense that you can talk with the parliament about many other things – the conversation is wider and deeper. For Mogherini it is all a one-trick pony, and you can’t talk about anything else with her.”
The official said that Israel has more than a few supporters in the parliament, but that – to the chagrin of some – most of them are not in the main center-right group called the European People’s Party (EPP) or center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D), but, rather, in parties further to the Right. That is likely to be the situation in the next parliament as well.
“In the last few years the biggest issues gripping Europe are how to deal with Muslim immigration and Muslim terrorism, and that is the big challenge,” he said. “And the more you are to the Right, the more you are anti-Muslim, and the more anti-Muslim you are, the more you become pro-Israel.”
This has placed Israel in a dilemma in its dealings with individual European countries, as well as in its relations to parliamentary groups: How deal with hard-right governments and far-right parties that skate close to antisemitism but also profess to be pro-Israel?
Populist parties on both the Right and the Left are expected to surge in the current election at the expense of the two traditional groups in the middle – the EPP and S&D – as Europe is becoming increasingly polarized.
Turnout for the European Parliament elections is traditionally low, with only a 42% rate of participation in the last election in 2014, something that tends to benefit the extremists on both sides, who are more ideologically motivated to turn out than those in the Center.
And this is something that is of concern to the local Jewish community.
The European Jewish Congress issued a statement on Wednesday calling on all Europeans to reject extremism and populism and “stand up for fundamental values and freedoms.”
“We have seen a constant and worrying rise of extremist parties, from both the far Right and the far Left, and populist parties in elections across the continent, and we are concerned that this trend will continue in the European elections,” EJC president Moshe Kantor said. “These parties are a danger to Europe, a danger to democracy and pose a threat to minorities in Europe, including to the Jewish community.”
According to Kantor, “Only through close political and economic cooperation can we ensure a peaceful and prosperous Europe, which is the best guarantee for the well-being of our community. We therefore must work together to strengthen moderate forces in order to stem and even reverse the tide against the extremists.
“We remain deeply concerned that antisemitism and the attacks on religious rights are used and abused for political gain, and we call on all political parties to oppose all attempts to restrict the right to a Jewish life in Europe,” he said.
His comments come against the backdrop of a significant increase in the incidents of antisemitism in Europe, as well as challenges to Jewish ritual slaughter and circumcision in some parts of the continent.