Will Israel abandon Netanyahu's far-right European allies?

An Israeli flag is set next to a European Union flag at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels in 2016. [Getty]
6 min read
02 August, 2021
Analysis: Israel's new government has signalled a willingness to reconnect with the EU, but questions remain over whether Tel Aviv will cut ties cultivated by Netanyahu with populist and far-right leaders.

In July, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Brussels at the invitation of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, where he also attended a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council.

It was the first visit of its kind in many years, with Tzipi Livni the last Israeli foreign minister to address Israel’s European counterparts in this forum in 2008.

As both sides expressed their readiness to restore their Association Council meetings, which have not taken place since 2012, many observers believe that Lapid’s visit was aimed at boosting bilateral cooperation and strengthening ties between Brussels and Tel Aviv, which have significantly deteriorated in the past decade.

"Netanyahu established bilateral ties with illiberal European states in Central and Eastern Europe, embracing far-right parties and movements across the continent and beyond"

Netanyahu's love affair with Europe's far-right

The previous Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu did not perceive the EU as an honest broker in the conflict with the Palestinians and instead focused on establishing bilateral ties with illiberal European states in Central and Eastern Europe, embracing far-right parties and movements across the continent and beyond.

During Netanyahu’s reign, Israel focused particularly on the ‘Visegrad Group of States’, including Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, all of which have populist leaders.

By cosying up with populist and far-right leaders who were already at odds with EU central institutions, he hoped to exert pressure on the rest of the EU, and civil society and leftist/liberal parties, who were growing increasingly concerned and outraged by Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians.

Besides the Visegrad bloc, Netanyahu later added several more states to his list of friends, including the former Yugoslavian republics of Slovenia, and its far-right Prime Minister Janez Jansa, Croatia, the three Baltic States and the Craiova Forum, which includes Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia.

He also became close friends with Matteo Salvini, the former Italian interior minister known for his extreme anti-immigration views, Jair Bolsonaro, a Brazilian version of Donald Trump, and highly controversial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once compared himself with Adolf Hitler.

Viktor Orban Netanyahu
Netanyahu described Viktor Orban as a ‘true friend of Israel’, despite past remarks by the Hungarian leader interpreted as anti-Semitic. [Getty]

Nimrod Goren, the president and founder of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told The New Arab that this was done mostly through personal ties that Netanyahu developed, with such relationships entailing visits, summits, and granting political backing. 

These alignments were based on a shared ideology and worldview, such as support for ethno-nationalist or illiberal policies and, for example, opposition to George Soros, according to Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). 

But at its core, Lovatt added, this was also a deliberate effort by Israel to use its ties with central European states to neutralise any EU actions perceived to be unfriendly towards Israel or its settlement project. In other words, Netanyahu wanted to utilise the alignment with central and eastern European countries to increase divisions within the EU.

“Netanyahu led a confrontational approach towards Brussels and sought to prevent the EU from reaching a consensus on statements and decisions regarding Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Goren told The New Arab.

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By using their veto power, these countries have assisted Israel in reaching its goal, as since 2016 the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council has not been capable of reaching conclusions related to the Middle East Peace Process.

In turn, through their alignment with Netanyahu and Israel, Europe’s nationalist and populist leaders hoped to silence international criticism over their controversial behaviour, such as their attempts to rewrite historical facts related to Nazi collaboration during World War Two and subsequent accusations of anti-Semitism. 

While all of these governments and movements share common ideological goals, Islamophobia has been a dominant factor in their alliance, specifically targeting the migrant crisis in Europe and the Muslim population across the continent.

Will the new Israeli government abandon Europe's far-right?

It is still uncertain whether the new Israeli government will abandon Netanyahu’s alignment with the European far-right. According to Goren, Yair Lapid is trying to adopt a different foreign policy approach emphasising Israel’s commitment to liberal and democratic values and seeking international alliances on this basis.

He has, for example, emphasised the importance of Israel-EU relations and the need for a fresh start. Lapid’s visit to Brussels, rather than a specific member state, reflected this change of policy. An Israeli foreign minister who sees a benefit for Israel in a strong EU, rather than a weak one, will prioritise ties with pro-European leaders in Europe rather than with Eurosceptic ones, according to Goren.

"While all of these governments and movements share common ideological goals, Islamophobia has been a dominant factor in their alliance"

The recent verbal spat with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki over legislation that makes it almost impossible for Jews to reclaim property their families owned before the Holocaust could be a step in this direction, as Lapid openly warned the Poles that “it will seriously harm relations between (our) countries”.

Israel could certainly also break off warm relations with far-right leaders while maintaining diplomatic ties and practical cooperation with such countries, but without seeing their leaders as like-minded allies.

In Goren’s view, Israel will be much better off strengthening its membership in the family of democratic and liberal countries, led by the US and European countries like Germany, France, and the UK. The benefits of such steps will clearly outweigh any gains that Netanyahu may have achieved through his alignments with nationalists and populists.

Netanyahu - Bolsonaro - Getty
Netanyahu had embraced right-wing populists across the world. [Getty]

No U-turn despite warmer relations?

However, Lovatt, a senior policy fellow with ECFR, says that relations with Poland had already become strained under Netanyahu over the same issues, with no marked difference under the new government.

In a similar vein, Shir Hever, a board member of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, thinks that while Lapid made it clear that he plans to change direction, he is not expecting him to make a U-turn. 

“Lapid, like Netanyahu, is a populist, but unlike Netanyahu, he is not a careful mastermind who plans first and then acts, but the opposite – he is quick to make bombastic statements and then apologises for them later,” Hever said.

In this regard, Israel’s strong relations with Central and Eastern European states, according to Lovatt, have carried over into the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and will likely continue to grow. However, he believes that they may no longer be Israel’s only principal vector for engaging the EU. 

“The appointment of Yair Lapid as foreign minister has presented an opportunity for Israel to reset relations with Western member states - whose relations with Israel under Netanyahu had suffered,” Lovatt told The New Arab.

"Netanyahu led a confrontational approach towards Brussels and sought to prevent the EU from reaching a consensus on statements and decisions regarding Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"

With the appointment of Lapid, Israel aims to improve its negative image among Western states in the post-Trump era. While Netanyahu often attacked and sometimes boycotted European leaders or politicians who criticised Israeli policies, Goren thinks that Lapid seeks to deliberately keep channels of communications open.

“Lapid also has no intention to give legitimacy to leaders with anti-Semitic sentiments and has shown a willingness to adopt fierce positions against those jeopardising Holocaust remembrance,” he said. 

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However, Hever expressed some reservations about Israel setting a brand-new foreign policy course. Although his speech at the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism promised to change the way that Israel deals with anti-Semitism, Lapid didn’t signal that he would cool ties with regressive, racist, and anti-Semitic governments across the globe.

“He also immediately contradicted himself by calling human rights movements anti-Semitic, so his strategy is doomed to fail,” Hever added. 

While Netanyahu’s departure may lead to a less intense partnership between Israel and Central European states, Lovatt believes that the new Israeli government – and its inclusion of both left and right-wing parties - will allow for a general improvement in relations with the EU and its member states across the board.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.