Members of Belgium’s Jewish community this week expressed great concern at their country’s incoming government, saying some of its members are known for being extremely critical of Israel.
Even before the final cabinet lineup was set to be announced on Wednesday evening, friends of Israel familiar with the Belgian political scene predicted increased tensions with Jerusalem and the local Jewish community, pointing to what they said were several harsh Israel critics likely to be appointed to key positions in the government.
“Israel will find that this government will try to shut down all little dialogue left between both countries,” said Brussels-based Jenny Aharon, who advises Israeli officials and Jewish organizations on matters related to EU-Israel relations.
However, she added, the newly formed government, which will be sworn in by King Philippe on Thursday morning, “does not represent a Flemish majority. Therefore it would be inaccurate to consider its adopted anti-Israel policies as a sentiment shared by the Belgian people as a whole.”
Belgium is considered among Israel’s toughest critics in Europe, with Jerusalem and Brussels at odds over the Palestinian question.
In February, the Belgian ambassador in Tel Aviv was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a dressing down over what Israeli officials called “a systematic campaign to demonize the Jewish state” after the country’s embassy to the United Nations invited a pro-Palestinian activist to address the Security Council.
In June, the Belgian parliament passed by an overwhelming majority a resolution urging the government to act to prevent Israel from unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank and to actively advocate for European-wide punitive measures against Jerusalem if it proceeds with its controversial plan.
On Wednesday — nearly 500 days after the last elections — Belgian lawmakers reached an agreement that would see a seven-party coalition take power. The new government would be headed by Alexander De Croo from the center-right Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats, or Open VLD, party.
Some of the other coalition parties, such as the Socialists and the Greens, have introduced some anti-Israel resolutions.
Yes, I am worried about Belgium’s future relations with Israel when I see what parties are included in this government
The new coalition agreement, published Wednesday, ominously states that Belgium “will take new steps” regarding its policies vis-à-vis Israeli settlements. The incoming government vows to work with other countries on creating 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.
“Yes, I am worried about Belgium’s future relations with Israel when I see what parties are included in this government,” said Michael Freilich, a lawmaker for the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest opposition party.
“The left-wing Ecolo has an MP in its ranks, Simon Moutquin, who for years headed the Belgian BDS movement that promotes the boycott of Israel. Similarly, the Socialist Party recently proposed a law to recognize the State of Palestine unconditionally, thereby leaving the internationally accepted road of a negotiated settlement,” he told The Times of Israel.
“Finally, the CD&V [Christian Democratic and Flemish] party advocated for Belgium to take the lead when it comes to installing international sanctions against Israel in case of annexation, language that is now included in the coalition agreement.”
Freilich, who is Jewish, said that his party, known in Flemish as N-VA, has always voted against these propositions. “We desire a just peace with two states for two peoples, with respect for Israel’s security needs and Palestinian aspirations,” he said. “We also believe that this is best achieved in negotiations between both parties.”
Brussels and Antwerp have large Jewish communities, but the parties of the incoming government have indicated that they want to remove the soldiers protecting Jewish schools and synagogues, he lamented.
Belgium’s likely new justice minister and deputy prime minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, from the Open VLD party, has been described by several sources as a radical opponent of Israel. In 2003, he visited Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza, and earlier this year referred to Israeli ministers as the “Jewish lobby.”
De joodse lobby draait overuren dezer dagen. Na Aalst nu Washington. pic.twitter.com/M7jONG04ql
— ᴠɪɴᴄᴇɴᴛ ᴠᴀɴ Qᴜɪᴄᴋᴇɴʙᴏʀɴᴇ (@VincentVQ) February 27, 2020
“Belgian Jewish groups implored him to retract the tweet, which he never did,” according to Freilich.
Outgoing interim prime minister Sophie Wilmes, who is of Jewish origin and considered pro-Israel, is expected to become foreign minister.