Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took off Thursday to Bulgaria for meetings with political leaders from Balkan nations, which he said would focus on strengthening diplomatic ties and pushing for a change in the European Union’s “hypocritical and hostile stance” toward Israel.
In Bulgaria, Netanyahu will attend an international summit and meet with the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Serbia, which is not a member of the EU.
The premier said the purpose of the visit was to strengthen Israel’s relationship with each of those countries, but also to promote his agenda with the European bloc, which he has long chastised for what he claims is an anti-Israel bias.
“This is not just a meeting of friends, but it is, of course, to strengthen relations with each of these countries,” he said. “Yet it is also a bloc of countries with whom I want to promote my policy, to change the hypocritical and hostile attitude of the EU.
“This is a process that will take time, but I believe in setting a goal and striving for it systematically, and I believe that this too will be achieved over time,” Netanyahu continued, before departing for the Black Sea city of Varna.
“This is important for the State of Israel, whose status is rising in the world,” he added.
In a statement issued in response, the EU mission in Israel said: “The EU and Israel enjoy strong mutually beneficial relations. The EU is Israel’s first economic partner and a strong political ally, fully committed to its security and well being. The EU and its Member States are one and the same, foreign policy decisions are adopted unanimously.”
Netanyahu didn’t specify which of the EU’s policies he takes issue with, but he has previously been at loggerheads with the bloc over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Iran nuclear deal. Members of the coalition and some in the opposition also often claim that the union treats the Jewish state unfairly and often stands on the wrong side of history.
Brussels’ adamant opposition to settlement expansion and to Israel’s demolition of Palestinian structures, as well as European funding of leftists nonprofits, have angered right-wing Israelis for years.
Israel’s ties with the 28-member state union significantly worsened after the EU’s November 2015 decision to label settlement products. In its initial anger, Israel suspended contacts with the EU, but soon reinstated them. There were other signs of a detente, for example when a senior official in Brussels said in late 2016 that the union was willing to reconvene the EU-Israel Association Council, a bilateral forum on ministerial level, after a five-year hiatus.
But relations quickly went south again. In July 2017, Netanyahu was overheard, during a visit to Budapest, calling the EU “crazy” for insisting on linking the advancement of bilateral ties to progress in the peace process.
Tensions were exacerbated after US President Donald Trump’s December 6, 2017, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move the union vehemently opposed.
Brussels also assumed the role of chief defender of the Iranian nuclear deal after Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the landmark pact on March 8. Brussels not only condemned the president’s move but also vowed to protect European companies from reimposed sanctions.
Israeli attacks on the union have since increased in frequency and intensity. Ministers openly accuse the EU of funding anti-Israel boycotts and even organizations with terrorist links.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.