Exclusive‘Attacks against European Jews are attacks on Europe itself’

As Russia threat grows, visiting European Union chief looks to Israel for solutions

In ToI interview, Ursula Von der Leyen indicates Europe sees Jerusalem as a valuable ally on defense, energy, food security; says Iran deal ready but ‘political decisions needed’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press statement at EU headquarters in Brussels, on February 27, 2022. (Stephanie Lecocq/Pool Photo via AP)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press statement at EU headquarters in Brussels, on February 27, 2022. (Stephanie Lecocq/Pool Photo via AP)

In February 2015, as Russia-backed separatists waged war in eastern Ukraine, America seemed eager for a fight.

Then-vice president Joe Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin “continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside and he absolutely ignores every agreement that his country has signed in the past.”

Former US Air Force general Philip Breedlove, then NATO’s top commander, told journalists that military support for Ukraine should be part of the package of Western pressure on Russia. “There is a large tool bag that we can use,” he said.

But among Europe’s major powers, the tone was different.

At that month’s annual security conference in Munich, Germany’s then-defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed Berlin’s view that military support was counterproductive. As The New York Times paraphrased her comments at the time, “Germany sees Ukraine and Russia as a chance to prove that in the 21st century, developed nations should solve disputes at the negotiating table, not with weapons.” Russia, she noted, could match any Western help with “an almost infinite supply of weapons it could send in to Ukraine.”

That was the view of the Merkel government, of Francois Hollande’s France, of much of Europe.

No longer.

A Ukrainian tank drives in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

“For the first time in history, the EU is financing deliveries of weapons – we have so far allocated two billion euros to cover the needs of the Ukrainian defense forces,” von der Leyen, now president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, told The Times of Israel in an interview by email ahead of her visit to Israel, which began Monday.

The visit is about many things, some of them standard fare for such trips. Von der Leyen will be meeting Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, and so on.

But the heart of the trip is, ultimately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the profound reorientation sparked by that aggression, including Europe’s sudden need to expand its defense capabilities, energy supply and food security.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid before their meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2022. (Maya Alleruzzo / POOL / AFP)

The change in tone and outlook that has come over von der Leyen since Putin’s February invasion is, like her, representative of Europe as a whole.

Von der Leyen’s biography is an almost risibly impressive apotheosis of the European idea. The descendant of German Hanoverian aristocracy, a physician who raises horses on the family farm, a mother of seven children born within a 13-year span, von der Leyen is almost literally the product of unified Europe. She was born in 1958 in Belgium rather than Germany, as her father began serving that year as the top aide to the first European commissioner for competition, one of the very first civil servants of the new European institutions. She is thus as fluent in French as in German. Her political career began when she won a state parliamentary seat in Lower Saxony in 2003. Two years later she was already a member of the German federal cabinet. From 2013 to 2019, she served as Germany’s defense minister, the first woman to hold the position. She was elected president of the European Commission, the European Union’s top executive post, in 2019 – once again the first woman in the job.

She is, both personally and professionally, Europe incarnate. And she sounds like it. She has called for a federalized “united states of Europe” and has expressed the hope that a pan-European army will one day be established. Her support for a stronger and more integrated European defense didn’t begin with Putin’s latest war.

Ahead of her visit to Israel, von der Leyen spoke with The Times of Israel in an email exchange about where Europe stands nearly four months into the Russian invasion. Her tone is uncompromising: “Our sanctions aim to drain the Kremlin’s resources… We will keep the pressure on for as long as it takes.” And her commitment to a more powerful Europe is explicit: “Europe needs to reinforce its ability to deal with security threats and to protect its citizens and interests.”

Part of that European pivot is expressing itself in an intensification of its relationship with Israel.

Defense ties have been flourishing in recent months. At the Eurosatory defense show in Paris that opens Monday, as many as 56 Israeli companies are expected to show their wares. With European defense agencies looking to spend as much as 200 billion euros ($210 billion) to quickly upgrade their defense capabilities against further Russian expansionism, many have turned to Israel for solutions.

When it comes to artificial intelligence, drones, precision targeting, smart coordinating systems for ground forces, firearm scopes, and more unusual technologies such as radars carried by infantry that can see through walls, Israel is at the cutting edge.

But it isn’t just Israeli technology that interests Europe. It is the Israeli sense of the world as still containing real hard-power dangers.

As one European official from Finland recently confided to this writer, “The Finns are the Israelis of Europe. Our next-door neighbors, the Swedes, haven’t fought a war in 400 years. But we remember the Winter War [the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland]. We were the last European country to sign the Ottawa Treaty against landmines, and many of us are unhappy that we did that.”

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (L) and President Sauli Niinistö give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, May 15, 2022. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP)

Finland was indeed a lone outlier on the landmine convention, and with good reason: its nigh-indefensible 800-mile border with Russia. Other European nations signed the treaty in 1997-99. Finland only acquiesced in 2011. Since Putin’s invasion, mainstream Finnish leaders have begun calling for leaving the treaty.

For many Europeans, then, Israel has become a symbol of a very different Western vision of what it means to defend oneself in an increasingly dangerous world.

But the relationship with Israel goes beyond defense. A three-way Israel-Egypt-EU gas deal is being negotiated that will play a role in Europe’s larger goal of energy independence from Russia. (In a statement announcing the visit, von der Leyen’s office said its purpose was “to take EU-Israeli relations forward, in particular on energy cooperation.” She is set to meet Energy Minister Karine Elharrar on Monday evening.)

Culturally and economically, too, Israel is a Western-oriented, economically developed, scientifically advanced and politically stable (relatively speaking) nation lying scarcely 200 kilometers from EU member state Cyprus. That alone has driven major efforts at collaboration between the EU and the Jewish state.

It is hard to exaggerate the scale of Israel-Europe cooperation. Few Israelis realize that their country’s vaunted advances in desalination, which over the past decade have essentially solved what was once an increasingly dire water crisis, were heavily financed by the EU’s European Investment Bank since as early as 2007. When the point was raised by The Times of Israel in the exchange with von der Leyen, her response was instructive: Israel has helped Europe in return, as when it cooperated closely on helping the EU improve its COVID-19 vaccination program.

Her office has also said that “the global response to the food crisis” precipitated by the Russian invasion is on the agenda of her visit, highlighting the potential importance of Israeli agricultural know-how for resolving the food shortages sparked by the Russia-Ukraine war.

Israel has been a member of Europe’s vast flagship scientific research program, Horizon Europe, since December. (It was previously part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 program.)

On Sunday, the day before von der Leyen’s visit, the Israeli cabinet officially announced its intention to join Creative Europe, the parallel to Horizon Europe in the realm of arts and culture.

The interview began with questions about Russia and European defense, moved on to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iran nuclear deal and Israel-EU cooperation, and concluded with the growing fears expressed by Europe’s Jewish communities over rising antisemitism on the continent.

The Times of Israel: What’s the endgame of the sanctions? What’s Europe’s specific demand from Moscow?

Ursula von der Leyen: There is one clear demand – not just by Europe, but by the wider international community: Russia must respect the UN Charter. This means stopping the violation of international law, ending the unprovoked aggression against the Ukrainian people and withdrawing the invading Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.

We imposed sanctions as a response to Russia’s blatant violations of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and to the atrocities committed by the Kremlin’s troops on [the] Ukrainian people. Our sanctions aim to drain the Kremlin’s resources and their ability to finance their illegal and unjustifiable war.

We will keep the pressure on for as long as it takes.

The world was surprised at Chancellor Scholz’s sudden announcement just two days after Russia’s invasion of the immediate addition of 100 billion euros to the military budget, and the subsequent defense commitments across Europe. Given your unique vantage point as a very recent German defense minister and current head of the commission, do you think this is a momentary shift or a long-term pivot? Are we witnessing the birth of a more assertive Europe in the hard-power sense? Is a European army possible? Is it a good idea?

The foundation of our collective defense is and will remain NATO.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as events elsewhere around us, are showing that Europe needs to reinforce its ability to deal with security threats and to protect its citizens and interests.

This is why, for the first time in history, the EU is financing deliveries of weapons – we have so far allocated two billion euros to cover the needs of the Ukrainian defense forces. This is in addition to considerable military support that EU countries are providing bilaterally.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, speaks during a joint press conference with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, Ukraine, June 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

So indeed, significant defense investments will be needed in Europe in the future. And it is good news that many EU countries have started increasing their defense spending, with 200 billion euros [$210 billion] in extra military spending announced up to now.

And this money must be spent in a strategic, coordinated way. We are a Union of 27 countries and we need to avoid fragmentation of defense industrial and financial resources. This is why we are now organizing common procurement at the EU level. This notably will ensure interoperability between our European Armed Forces. It will strengthen our European defense industrial base in the long-term. And it will reinforce NATO as well.

On the peace process, the Palestinian side is divided, the government of Mahmoud Abbas is deeply unpopular, polls show Hamas winning the next election in the West Bank. Israeli politics have moved steadily rightward in recent years on the question of Palestinian statehood. Practically, is there a Palestinian partner for peace? Is Israel, in Europe’s view, capable of delivering a two-state solution?

What must be done to get from the current impasse to Europe’s preferred solution? What’s Europe’s role in getting there? And if two states are not forthcoming, what would a European peace policy look like in this region?

Only Israelis and Palestinians can agree, achieve and maintain a lasting peace.

The EU supports a two-state solution – a secure Israel, living side by side in peace with a Palestinian state. This solution can fulfil the legitimate aspirations of both sides and bring peace and security to all.

We very much welcome all efforts towards peace and the Abraham Accords offer hope towards that goal. We are also ready to explore cooperation with Israel in this regard, including on a regional level in the context of the normalization agenda.

Continued outbreaks of violence, as we have witnessed in [recent] weeks, underline the need to address the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, restore a political horizon and open the path towards the relaunching of the peace process as soon as possible.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces during a protest in the village of Beit Dajan, near the West Bank city of Nablus, June 3, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Beyond Israel’s renewed engagement with the Palestinians on various levels and the government’s measures on improving Palestinians’ lives, which we welcome, the region and its people need a real political and economic perspective – and the EU is ready to help with that.

We owe it to today’s Israelis and Palestinians, as well as to our children and grandchildren.

Not so long ago, Europeans called each other enemies. But we succeeded in bringing peace, stability and prosperity to the whole continent.

Others can achieve that too. Our advice is to keep trying, and not wait.

Do you think some form of the Iran deal can be resuscitated, and if not, what’s Europe’s Iran policy going forward?

The Iran nuclear deal remains a major multilateral security achievement. This is widely recognized and endorsed by the UN Security Council. Without this deal, Iran could have developed nuclear weapons by now, adding another source of instability in the region.

It is therefore more important than ever to bring the JCPOA back on track. That is why the High Representative of the EU [the union’s foreign minister, a position currently held by Josep Borrell], as the Coordinator of the deal, continues to engage in intense negotiations with parties of the deal and the US.

We believe that with a restored JCPOA, we can return to a more positive dynamic. An agreement is within reach and the negotiated text is basically ready. However, crucial political decisions are now urgently needed.

Economically and culturally, the Israeli-European relationship is already close and flourishing. The eurozone is our major trading zone. The European Investment Bank has been a major financier for Israeli desalination projects. Europe helped us solve our water crisis. Culturally, Israelis visit Europe, admire Europe and want to feel close to Europe. A simple question, then: How do you see the future of this relationship?

The European Union and Israel share a unique bond. Forged by history, built on our shared values and interests, and rooted in excellent cooperation on topics ranging from energy to health, from culture to research and innovation, to name just a few.

For example, our cooperation during the COVID-19 pandemic was simply outstanding. Scientific data shared by Israel helped us make our vaccination campaigns in the EU more effective. And I’m very happy that, since December, Israel is participating in Europe’s massive innovation program, Horizon Europe.

So my visit aims to build on this deep cooperation, to make our partnership even stronger. This is important and urgent in these bleak times, with many challenges affecting the region, and with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sending shockwaves around the globe, particularly on food and energy security. We will discuss how to address these shockwaves, together as partners.

The Jewish communities of Europe are telling us they feel increasingly afraid. Synagogues have been under guard for years in many parts of Europe, and for good reason. The simultaneous rise of the far-right and of Islamist ideologies in some places in Europe have left Jews feeling in a vise. According to EU figures, 38% of Europe’s Jews have considered emigrating because of these concerns.

Last October, your commission announced an “EU Strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life.” You said at the time, “We want to see Jewish life thriving again in the heart of our communities.” Can you tell us about that? What specifically can European institutions do? What’s your message to Europe’s Jews?

Attacks against European Jews are attacks against our fundamental European values. They are attacks against Europe itself. We will never tolerate that. Rest assured that Jewish life has always been and will always be an integral part of our European life.

We have an EU law on racist hate speech and hate crimes, including the criminalization of Holocaust denial, trivialization and condoning.

Illustrative: Men wearing kippas are seen at the synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany, on October 10, 2019, one day after the antisemitic attack where two people were shot dead. (Ronny Hartmann/AFP)

And last year we adopted the first-ever EU Strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. It includes very practical measures, from fighting anti-Semitic propaganda online and offline to protecting Jewish communities and places of worship around Europe and fostering Jewish life.

I want to see Jewish life thriving in the heart of our communities. So, for example, it is essential that Europeans learn about Jewish life and Judaism, which are an essential part of our European culture. The Strategy puts a premium on teaching Jewish history to our children, and on promoting Jewish heritage in our cities. Because Jewish history is our history, Jewish culture is our culture.

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