“As regards issues of human rights violations, the Israeli lobby receives much more favourable treatment than the representative of other national interests” to quote a source inside the European parliament.”When Russia placed European deputies on a blacklist, banning them from the national territory, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz immediately curtailed the access of Russian diplomats to the institution. Israel, on the other hand, is never slow to blacklist European MPs who defend the rights of the Palestinians and since 2011 with very few exceptions have banned all MEPs from the Gaza Strip without ever triggering the slightest countermeasure from our side in return!” our contact continued.
In January 2016, Schulz’s successor, Antonio Tajani, banned a conference dealing with the accusations that the Bachar Al-Assad regime had used poison gas which was to be attended by a Syrian minister. On the other hand, he had no problem rolling out the red carpet for the Israeli MP, Avi Dichter, who had been in charge of the repression of the second Intifada, when he came to speak before the Foreign Affairs Committee, in September 2018.
While the influence of pressure groups aimed at preserving US support for Tel Aviv is a matter of public knowledge, the activities of these networks in Europe is not so well-known. Since the turn of the century, the latter have been busy cementing their friendly relations with the European Union (EU) and its member States. While the good graces of Brussels are not as vital for Tel Aviv as those of Washington, they are nonetheless strategically important. The EU is Israel’s main trading partner and has gradually granted it privileged ally status in domains as crucial as scientific research, technical innovation and intelligence gathering.
The Israeli lobby first gained a firm foothold in Europe in the aftermath of the second Intifada which broke out in September 2001. “Acknowledging the deterioration of its image on account of its repression of Palestinian resistance, the Israeli government tried to make up for its loss of legitimacy due to its colonial policies by improving its image in the eyes of the European leaders,” Irish journalist David Cronin explained to us. He co-authored, with Sarah Marusek and David Miller, a vast study on the subject.1 Fifteen years on, the Israeli effort has been remarkably successful, and today Tel Aviv has at its beck and call a network of influence practically unparalleled by any other State pressure group.
The lobby was able to count on the backing of its “big brother” in the US. Some of its components are direct offshoots, like the Transatlantic Institute, set up the American Jewish Committee, or B’nai B’rith Europe. Other structures, though they have no organic ties with Washington agencies, use identical methods, like the European Friends of Israel (EFI), founded in 2006, or Europe Israel Public Affairs (EIPA), which functions in a way similar to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Besides their general role as conveyor belts for governmental viewpoints, some of these are assigned specific tasks. Thus the NGO Monitor created in 2002, is a past master in the art of discrediting, often mendaciously, Israeli and Palestinian NGOs in the minds of their Western donors.
A Chameleon Lobby
Because EU transparency rules are far less stringent than the US equivalent, it is difficult to identify with precision the sources of their financing. However, by studying the tax returns of charitable organisations it has been possible to ascertain that the bulk of their funding comes from philanthropists living on the other side of the Atlantic, whose sympathies lie with the American and Israeli right-wing (among them Sheldon Adelson, a property developer and friend of President Donald Trump2). They also have the support of Israeli diplomatic services.
One feature of a substantial number of these lobby components is to combine their unwavering support for Israeli policies and their defence, sometimes quite sincere, of the interests of the Jewish communities of Europe. Yet their representativeness is anything but self-evident. The European Jewish Association (EJA), which prides itself on providing the largest umbrella structure for Jewish organisations in Europe, actually includes very few with any real local roots.
Though they do not form a monolithic block, these organisations do display a degree of porosity among themselves. Menachem Margolin, one of the most active lobbyists in Brussels, is the founder of both EIPA and EJA. The opacity of their inner workings makes them a truly “chameleon lobby” with a great deal of flexibility.
Targeting Power Centres
Foreign relations and joint security are two areas closely observed by these organisations. EU decisions in these matters are taken by the member States according to the unanimity rule. This being the case, a large share of the lobby’s efforts are deployed at the national level, relying especially on the pro-Israel consensus prevailing in Germany as well as in Central and Eastern Europe. While it is often the embassies which handle the operation, local pressure groups have been active for years, in the UK for example (the lobby documented by Al Jazeera) .
Of fundamental interest here is the influence exerted on the European Commission, which holds a monopoly on legislative initiatives, implements all EU decisions and handles financial assistance to third-party countries and cooperation programs. Some directorates general (DG) are the object of especially close attention, such as the DG Taxation and Customs Union (Taxud) in charge of the touchy issue of produce from the colonies, as well as the DG of Research and Innovation (RTD) which finances in particular the European programme “Horizon 2020” in which Israel is a participant. The lobby finds an attentive ear in these administrations. The appointment of Cecilia Malmström as Commissioner of Trade was applauded by EFI. The Commissioner for Science, Research and Innovation has been especially active promoting Israel’s participation in European research programmes.
Courting the Far Right
The lobby has also set up powerful relays within the European Parliament. Most of these MEPs belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group or the European Peoples Party (EPP). The Christian Zionist current, which sees the success of the “Jewish State” as the fulfilment of a Biblical prophecy, also has its followers in the European Parliament, though in lesser numbers than in the USA. They are gathered under the banner of the European Coalition for Israel (ECI). Like most of the other organisations belonging to the lobby, this one does not confine itself to promoting ties with Israel but is also a fervent champion of that country’s most extremist positions, calling in particular for a recognition of its government’s sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem.
And last but not least, Israel can also count on those who see it as the advanced stronghold of the West against Islam. These are recruited from the ranks of the conservatives but also among representatives of the far or radical right to whom Israel has made overtures despite the unsavoury relations which some of them entertain with anti-Semitism. Six of the thirteen founder members of the Friends of Judea and Samaria3 in the European Parliament belong to that current. Created in 2017, this group tends to favour trade with the West Bank colonies despite this being in violation of international law.
The co-opting of MEPs by Israeli pressure groups can sometimes lead to conflicts of interest. One political advisor for ECR, Elise Coolegem also works with the Israeli embassy. There is some doubt as to whether she is paid for this extra-parliamentary activity which is strictly forbidden by the rules of that assembly. As for the chairman of the delegation for relations with Israel, Fulvio Martusciello (EPP), his personal advisor is Nuno Wahnon Martins, a member of The European Jewish Congress (EJC) which aims to promote “balanced” European policies towards Israel. An investigation carried out by David Cronin shows that it is he himself who does most of the delegation’s work, giving Israel direct access to in-house documents.
The Discreet Charm of a “Start-Up Nation”
The lobby’s efficacy is due only in part to an accommodating attitude among European officials. In David Conin’s analysis, “many in the EU establishment and that of its member-States view favourably the rapprochement with Israel and do not feel that human rights considerations warrant putting it off.” While European public opinion still has a negative perception of Israel’s influence in the world, some business circles are attracted by the opportunities offered by that “start-up nation.” Many European and Israeli companies have close connections and the country’s high level of investment in research and development (4.11%, one of the highest in the OECD) makes it a precious scientific partner. A major customer for European arms sales, Israel has also become a purveyor of high-tech military equipment for European countries, especially armed drones, some of which were tested over Gaza.
The pressure groups are well aware of this and exploit the contradictions between the business interests of the European elites and their ostensible concern for the rule of law. Indeed an unfavourable arbitration can prove disastrous for Israel. In 2009, the freeze in the process of improvement of bilateral relations after the murderous attack on the Gaza Strip led to a 20.8% drop in trade with the EU.4.
In 2012, EFI played a decisive role in the ratification by the European Parliament of the Protocol on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance. Indeed, the lobby had conducted an intense campaign targeting European free marketeers, torn between their human rights concerns and their business interests. The latter finally agreed to reopen discussions, allowing a slim majority in favour of the protocole to emerge, with the help of the Belgian Frédérique Ries and the Britisher Sarah Luford. These two members of EFI used among other arguments the notion that a better access to the common market for the Israeli company Teva, world’s largest manufacturer of generic medicaments, “would enable UE citizens to purchase affordable high-quality drugs.”5.
The heavy fire from the diplomatic services and the lobby in Brussels and in the members’ States (which, in the Council, oppose in principle the further development of relations with Tel Aviv) constantly impede the rare attempts of the European authorities to put their words into actions. In 2013, an agreement was reached with a rather flexible interpretation on a first set of guidelines excluding any European financing for institutions or companies located in the colonies, and which would imply a de facto recognition of their existence. A second set, adopted in 2015, and which recommended a specific labelling of any merchandise produced in the occupied territories proved practically impossible to enforce.
An Administration Effectively Stifled
Both in order to pursue its own objectives and through knee-jerk self-censorship vis a vis the EU Council of Ministers, the Commission’s administrative apparatus carefully stifles any attempt to use a harsher tone. And yet it would be in the interest of Europe to step up the pressure on Tel Aviv. According to one EU official, “the Union spends three hundred million euros a year to ease the sufferings of the Palestinians, whereas if Israel lifted the Gaza blockade—even just partially—it would have considerably greater impact on the social-economic development of the population.”
However, the fact remains that neither the EU nor any of its member States have ever managed to hold Israel to account for its army’s destruction of internationally financed projects in Palestine. Yet not only does the Union have the means to do so, but the obligation: on 18 March 2017, the Legal Service of the Commission issued an advisory on the matter. Recalling the unlawful nature of these demolitions and the injunctions by which the international community is bound prevent them6, the confidential note we were able to consult lists a series of possible counter-measures, ranging from demands for financial compensation to “the complete or partial suspension of international agreements with Israel.” Sticking to its policy of never going beyond the stage of verbal disapproval, the Commission ignored the document’s conclusions.
Moreover, certain organisations such as NGO Monitor, do their best to hinder EU development work in the occupied territories by denigrating its local partners. “We are instructed to meet with its representatives, accompanied at times by someone from the Israeli embassy in Brussels, which is paradoxical for a so-called ‘non-governmental’ organisation,” an EU administrator observes. “NGO has access to both the Council and Parliament and thus knows precisely who are the beneficiaries of our financial aid.”
Their Ultimate Weapon: The Anti-Semitism Charge
The lobby has also become the spearhead for the Israeli government’s crusade against what it calls the “networks of delegitimisation.” The target here is the international campaign for Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) aimed at Israel so long as it fails to conform to its international obligations vis-a-vis the Palestinian people. This initiative, which originated in the Palestinian civil society, is now ranked as a “strategic threat,” not so much on account of its economic impact as for the damage it has done to the country’s image. On 31 December 2017, the government set up a 72-million-dollar fund, partly financed by private contributions, to combat the boycott abroad.
The lobby is not satisfied with the official EU position, opposed to BDS but valuing freedom of speech, and works overtime to criminalise the campaign. On a continent still traumatised by the memory of the massacre of the Jews, the charge of anti-Semitism has proven remarkably effective. Since 2016, the lobby has been trying to obtain the EU adoption of the “working definition” of anti-Semitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which relies on examples conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism. In the United Kingdom and in certain states of the USA, where such definitions have been written into the law, dozens of solidarity events have been cancelled because they referred to the boycott.
Circumventing the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in order to evade the vigilance of MEPs, pro-Israeli bodies pushed through a resolution in the June 2017 plenary session calling on member-States and EU organisations to adopt such a definition. On 6 December 2018, the Council’s Justice and Home Affairs Formation (JHA) voted a similar motion, but without referring to the controversial examples, which were not, however, explicitly ruled out. The United Kingdom already adopted this resolution in 2016, joined by eight European countries.
The lobby can rely on the German coordinator for combatting anti-Semitism, Katharina von Schnurbein. Closely involved as she is with the principal pro-Israel pressure groups, she diligently passes on their press releases, including their accusations of anti-Semitism aimed at BDS. In February 2018, she joined forces with the lobby to denigrate the Portuguese MEP, socialist Ana Gomes, who organised a seminar with Omar Barghouti, original proponent of the campaign. Accused by Gomes of having violated the good conduct code for the Parliament’s administrative personnel, Schnurbein was backed up by the Commission.
In November 2018, at a Brussels conference on BDS, EJA and EIPA announced that they were addressing all European political parties demanding that they reject “the boycott activities as fundamentally anti-Semitic.” However, this initiative was not unanimously supported by the Jewish community. “To consider the specific targeting of Israel rather than any other state as anti-Semitic is very strange indeed; what other country pursues a similar policy of colonisation and oppression?” The question was asked by Arthur Goodman of the British group European Jews for Justice for Palestinians (EJJP) during a press conference organised in response to that event.
Accusations against BDS such as those made by NGO Monitor can prove very harmful. “We are obliged to waste our time debunking those absurd accusations”, Aneta Jerska deplores. She is the coordinator of the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP). “Now, a good campaign takes several years, and we, unlike te pro-Israel organisations, are not well-funded,” she adds, hoping to multiply partnerships with Jewish associations which object to the instrumental use of anti-Semitism.
Could this effectiveness of the foreign mouthpieces of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government in ensuring the active support of the USA and the passivity of Europe one day turn against him? Certain now of his impunity, he acts quite openly, giving new impetus to the colonisation, strengthening the ethnic nature of the State and reinforcing his alliances with “illiberal” regimes, which has damaged even further Israel’s public image, including among the Jewish communities of the world.
The widening of the gap that separates it from European public opinion could well complicate the tasks of the lobby. In February 2017, the head of EIPA expressed concern over a vote by the Israeli parliament in favour of a law which would legalise after the fact the theft of Palestinian land. “When things like this happen, it undoes so much of our good work on presenting Israel in the best possible light in the EU Institutions,” he explained on his blog.
As in the US, the Israeli lobby in Europe thus finds itself in the paradoxical position of having never been so influential with the elite and so out of touch with the civil society. A kind of inverted reflection of the movement of solidarity with the Palestinians, whose success on the ground offers a stark contrast with the enormous difficulty it encounters trying to convince our leaders to prefer the rule of law to realpolitik.
2Ibid. , p. 5.
3Biblical names used by right-wing Zionists in referring to the West Bank.
4David Cronin, Sarah Marusek, David Miller, op. cit.