Europe, in Panic Over Energy, Is Suddenly Cozying Up to Israel

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, fetches up at Ben Gurion University, burbling with friendly words.

AP/Michal Dyjuk
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, at Poland June 2, 2022. AP/Michal Dyjuk

It might be that turning around an ocean liner takes a while, but that doesn’t mean Europe’s U-turn on Israel — which is becoming apparent with each passing week — isn’t astounding. It is developing into a major story, even if, like President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, it has to do with an acute need for energy sources. 

Just this week, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was in the Negev, pocketing an honorary degree from Ben Gurion University. “Europe and Israel are bound to be friends and allies,” she burbled. “The history of Europe is the history of the Jewish people.” 

Ms. Leyen, a German national, spoke after receiving her honorary doctorate from an institution named after Israel’s first prime minister, who — even before the Nazi Holocaust — called Europe the “graveyard of the Jewish people.”

“The strongest bond we share is our belief in democracy and in democratic values,” Ms. Leyen said in her speech. “Democracy has strengthened our special bond of friendship through the decades” and “today more than ever before, democracies like Europe and Israel should come closer together.”

For many Israelis the warmth blowing from Brussels all the way to their southern desert feels like a breath of fresh air. Ever siding with the Palestinians on various disputes and eager to embrace Iran’s Islamic Republic, the Europeans are rarely seen as the Jewish state’s best friend — or even a friend.

A European Union envoy, Josep Borrell, is mediating indirect negotiations between America and Iran to renew the 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. A frequent visitor to Tehran, Mr. Borrell remains the most enthusiastic supporter of the deal’s renewal even as it is strongly opposed by Israel, as well as a growing, bipartisan group of American senators. 

Meanwhile, after a long internal debate over incitement in Palestinian textbooks, the European Commission yesterday approved $220 million in funding to the Palestinian Authority. No strings were attached and the budget funding had no mention of the need to tone down anti-Israel and antisemitic content in the PA education system. 

Last week the commission dismissed Israeli documentation showing that six Palestinian nongovernmental organizations are acting on behalf of a designated terror organization. Brussels determined that there was not sufficient evidence tying the NGOs to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and then resumed its funding. 

Israelis are often angered over a voting pattern at the United Nations and other international bodies that sees European countries mostly support or abstain in votes that disproportionately condemn their country. 

Even so, the European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, according to the commission. In 2020, 34.4 percent of Israel’s imports came from the EU, and 21.9 percent of the country’s exports went to the EU. Now that Israel is becoming a major gas exporter, the Europeans are eager to deepen relations even further. 

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, “Russia has deliberately cut off its gas supplies to Poland, to Bulgaria, to Finland, to Dutch companies, to Danish companies, in retaliation for our support to Ukraine,” Ms. Leyen said yesterday. Added she: “The Kremlin behavior only strengthened our resolve to break free of our dependency on Russian fossil fuels.”

This is the context in which Ms. Leyen has just said that the EU is prepared to fund two projects linking Israeli energy resources to Europe. A gas and hydrogen pipeline would be laid in the eastern Mediterranean, and an underwater power cable would link Israel with Cyprus and Greece. 

Piping gas to Greece, and from there to the rest of Europe, from Israel has been in the works for a while, and the EU has poured quite a lot of money into the project. Then Washington announced the Greece pipe would be too expensive and inefficient. Instead, the Biden administration sided with Turkey, which wants the pipeline to go through its territory despite its animosity to Israel. 

Meanwhile, the cheapest and most efficient method that Israel currently uses for exporting its gas to Europe is by sending it over to Egypt, which has modern liquifying facilities. From there the liquified gas is loaded on ships that sail across to Europe. 

Either way, energy-starved Europe has noticed Israel’s growing drilling abilities. Brussels is even siding with Israel over a Hezbollah-manufactured crisis — Lebanon’s claim of sovereignty over a major Israeli offshore gas field.

Rather than futile attempts to mediate the dispute, as employed by Washington, Brussels is ready to concede that the Karish gas field is in Israel’s exclusive economic zone. The United Nations has said Karish is in Israel’s territorial waters, but the Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, contends a new line must be drawn. 

In contrast to Europe, a State Department negotiator, Amos Hochstein, has been going back and forth between Jerusalem and Beirut, where he is lurking this week. There, Mr. Hochstein is attempting to “mediate” between Israel and Lebanon’s demand to expand its maritime sovereignty into Israel’s. 

At least in this case, then, Brussels is more accommodating of Israel’s needs than Washington. While Israel is often frustrated with European attitudes, it has long seen the continent’s proximity as an asset. Now Europe is starting to see Israel as an asset as well. 

“At first the Arab Spring and now the Ukraine war have changed Europe’s geopolitical priorities,” a former diplomat who until recently served as Israel’s ambassador to the European Union, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, told the Sun. 

Immigration to Europe from Arab countries, Israel’s mastery of new technologies, and its ability to help the Europeans in advancing their internal and external security contribute to the shift in Europe’s attitudes, according to the former Israeli diplomat.

“They can attack us and condemn our policies in various forums but in reality the need for Israeli technologies is more important to Europeans than what happens in the Palestinian territories,” Mr. Leshno-Yaar said. 

The New York Sun

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