'Can we continue' trading with Israel? 'I don't think so'

Belgian PM says he is rallying EU countries to impose trade sanctions on Israel

Alexander De Croo, who faces an election next month, supports measures against settlement products, but they are unlikely to gain necessary support in 27-member bloc

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo speaks during a press conference at the end of the European Council summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels, April 18, 2024. (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP)
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo speaks during a press conference at the end of the European Council summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels, April 18, 2024. (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP)

Belgium is trying to recruit other European countries to impose new trade sanctions on Israel, according to statements made Monday by its political leadership.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws that he was pushing for the European Union to impose a ban on products made in settlements.  He singled out dates, olive oil and wine.

“Can we now simply continue with Israel as a trading partner? I don’t think so,” said De Croo, who earlier this year resisted calls by the opposition to push sanctions on Israel.

“Since then, there have been 35,000 deaths, including 10,000 children,” he explained, referring to the unverified death toll published by the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

“And it is not the main reason, but we Europeans will bear the consequences. In ten years they’re going to say, ‘You watched and took no action.'”

De Croo also cited the danger of regional escalation as the result of the Gaza war.

He said that he has been working with other European countries “for weeks” on sanctions, and has asked European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to look into whether Israel violated its association agreement with the EU.

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks during a press conference in Brussels, on April 8, 2024. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

Belgium currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council.

Sanctions through the EU have no realistic chance of passing. This is a possible indication that the statements were designed for domestic consumption, and not to have any practical effect.

De Croo faces elections next month.

He visited Israel in November with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visited Kibbutz Be’eri, scene of some of the worst Hamas atrocities on October 7, when the terror group killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted 252 hostages.

The visit took a bizarre turn when Sanchez and De Croo spoke to reporters from the Rafah crossing minutes before the release of Israeli hostages. Sanchez decried the “indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians,” and said Spain would recognize a Palestinian state.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (L) and Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (R) hold a joint press conference on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip, in the north eastern Sinai province, on November 24, 2023. (AFP)

Though De Croo’s remarks were more measured, Netanyahu and other senior ministers condemned the comments from both men and Israel summoned the Belgian and Spanish ambassadors

Meanwhile, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Petra De Sutter, from the left-wing Groen party, wrote on X that Brussels is “working on further sanctions” against Israel.

“If Belgium wishes to end the conflict it should demand the release of Israeli hostages, the capitulation of Hamas, and impose sanctions on the main source of aggression and instability in the Middle East — Iran,” said Emmanuel Navon, CEO of ELNET-Israel, an organization that works to strengthen ties between Israel and Europe.

There has been renewed anger against Israel in Belgium after an Israeli strike in Rafah in April killed a local aid worker who was part of Belgium’s development aid efforts in the Gaza Strip, as well as his seven-year-old son.

Belgium had been asking Israel for months to allow its local development staff to leave Gaza.

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip carry their belongings as they await transportation following a call to evacuate by the Israeli army on May 6, 2024 (AFP)

Belgium is one of the EU countries most critical of Israel.

In March, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib visited the West Bank and announced the country would be sanctioning “violent settlers.”

The same month, two Belgian ministers called for Israel to be barred from the Eurovision Song Contest while its war against Hamas is ongoing.

The country’s foreign minister summoned Israel’s ambassador in February to condemn the Israeli bombing of the country’s development agency building in Gaza.

Belgium’s parliament also refused to screen a film provided by Israel showing some of the worst atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on October 7, with some lawmakers reportedly decrying the video as Israeli propaganda.

De Sutter said that Belgium would co-sponsor a bill at the UN General Assembly this week giving full membership to the Palestinians.

The ruling coalition in Belgium includes parties such as the Socialists and the Greens that regularly push anti-Israel measures. In 2020, local Jewish leaders told The Times of Israel before the government was sworn in that they were worried about the stances it would take on Israel.

The coalition agreement stated that Belgium “will take new steps” regarding its policies on Israeli settlements, and would create a list of “efficient and proportional countermeasures” in case Israel were to annex parts of the West Bank. It would also consider the recognition of a Palestinian state, according to the coalition agreement.

Belgium is Israel’s fourth-largest trading partner in the EU, a figure skewed somewhat by the weight of the diamond trade between the countries.

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