Israeli officials are warily following the changing of the guard at the European Union, where someone who has recently floated the idea of unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood and has expressed strong support for Iran was tapped to be its next foreign policy chief.
On Tuesday, the European Council nominated Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles, a member of the country’s ruling Socialist Workers’ Party, as the EU’s top diplomat.
German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU party, was also picked as the new president of the European Commission, one of the union’s key decision-making bodies, in a surprise decision.
The Council made two other important nominations, though they will likely have a much smaller impact on EU-Israel relations: Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was tapped to head the Council itself, and current International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde was nominated to preside over the European Central Bank.
Since all appointments have yet to be confirmed by the European Parliament, Israel did not publicly comment on the matter. But officials in Jerusalem are seeing the reshuffle as a mixed bag at best.
Von der Leyen, a senior member of Merkel’s staunchly pro-Israel government, is seen as positively disposed toward the Jewish state. She last visited Jerusalem in May 2015, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed her warmly as “a friend of Israel.”
While supportive of the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel rejects but is backed by virtually all European governments, the 60-year-old politician has been instrumental in Israeli-German arm deals, including the sale of submarines and other marine vessels, and the 2018 purchase of Israeli-made drones for $1.17 billion.
By contrast, Borrell, a veteran statesman who has been in politics since 1993, is seen as very critical of Israel.
“More difficult times [are] ahead between the EU and Israel I fear,” tweeted Bas Belder, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and veteran pro-Israel advocate.
Tellingly! When I learned His name as successor of HR Mogherini, I knew enough. More difficult times ahead between the EU and Israel I fear. https://t.co/4ZgoTq9zlj
— Bas Belder (@BasBelderMEP) July 3, 2019
“It won’t be a piece of cake with him,” an Israeli diplomatic official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.
When Borrell was appointed Spain’s foreign minister last year, he quickly become a leading voice advocating for the recognition of a Palestinian state.
“It is obvious [that] the situation in Palestine must not continue as it is,” Borrell said in September 2018. “If the EU is not able to reach a unanimous decision, then each to their own,” he said, indicating that Madrid would consider unilaterally recognizing Palestinian statehood.
Hoy me he reunido con mi homólogo #palestino, Riad Al Malki. Le he trasladado mi sincero deseo de que el sufrimiento de su pueblo acabe cuanto antes. #España sigue comprometida con la solución de los dos Estados. pic.twitter.com/nQNXCkYQtt
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) September 4, 2018
Borrell, who is expected to take over from Federica Mogherini in November, reiterated this position “time and again, so ideologically we know exactly where he comes from,” the Israeli official said.
“More recently, he was the guy behind Spain’s vote in favor of the UN Human Rights Council report on the Gaza border,” he added.
In a scathing op-ed on May 18, 2018, the foreign minister condemned Israel for its response to the riots on the Gaza border four days earlier, which coincided with 70th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel and the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
These celebrations were “covered in blood as this black Monday reflects the dehumanization of the Palestinians by a large part of the Israeli political class and society,” he wrote in Republica.
The embassy opening fell on the deadliest day of the so-called Great March of Return, with Palestinians rioting, and in at least one incident opening fire, at the Gaza border at the behest of the Hamas terrorist organization. The Israeli army responded with live fire among other means, killing 62 Palestinians that day and the next. According to Hamas, 50 of the 62 were its members, and three others were from the Islamic Jihad terror group.
In the Republica article, Borrell denounced Israel’s military campaigns against Hamas in Gaza as “terrible bombings” and lambasted Netanyahu’s “warlike arrogance.”
An outspoken critic of US President Donald Trump, the incoming EU foreign policy chief is also being criticized for his pro-Iranian positions. In February, for instance, he tweeted a congratulatory and entirely uncritical message celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
Seguramente Irán puede sobrevivir a las sanciones si Trump no es reelegido. En caso contrario, el régimen podría reactivar el programa nuclear con finalidad militar y multiplicar sus intervenciones en la región.(7/7)
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) February 11, 2019
“Iran wants to wipe out Israel; nothing new about that. You have to live with it,” he told Politico at the time.
Borrell is no stranger to Israel, where he met his first wife, with whom he has two children, while working on a kibbutz.
In 2005, as president of the European Parliament, he delivered a speech to the Knesset recalling his time on the kibbutz and Europe’s staunch support of Israel.
I wish to reaffirm Europe’s commitment to, and its special responsibility for, the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and as a democracy living in security and peace with its neighbors
“This is not a strange land to me. 36 years ago, in 1969 when I had just graduated, I came to Israel to work on a kibbutz — the one in Galon, following in the footsteps of other young Europeans attracted by that experience,” he recalled at the time.
“Since then, I have returned several times — as a minister, as a member of parliament, and simply as a citizen who, like yourselves, wishes to see this country finally at peace.”
During that speech, he also endorsed Israel’s Jewish character, something European officials almost never say.
“I wish to reaffirm Europe’s commitment to, and its special responsibility for, the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and as a democracy living in security and peace with its neighbors,” he declared. “If I had to summarize my message of today in just one idea, I would want it to be this: Europe and Israel need each other. Neither is conceivable without close ties between the two.”
But, like many European politicians who once used to have sympathy for Israel, “somewhere along the road, he became very critical,” the Israeli official said.