'Israel doesn't understand the EU'

Young European lawmakers explore ‘Startup Nation,’ Gaza border

Touring Gaza periphery communities and Jerusalem, delegation says there is still much work to be done on Israel’s relations with the union and with individual countries

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A group of young lawmakers on an ELNET delegation from Europe tour an Iron Dome battery near Sderot, November 22, 2021 (ELNET)
A group of young lawmakers on an ELNET delegation from Europe tour an Iron Dome battery near Sderot, November 22, 2021 (ELNET)

A delegation of young European lawmakers spoke to The Times of Israel about their first visit to Israel last month, pointing to their encounter with startups and a briefing by the Foreign Ministry’s international law head as especially valuable for their understanding of contemporary Israeli successes and challenges.

The group of 16 lawmakers — brought to Israel by the Foreign Ministry and ELNET, an organization working to build ties between Israel and Europe — hailed from Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Sweden.

“It was very important for us to experience in our own eyes the places we saw from TV and talk with the people that deal with the situation,” Olympios Christofi, from Cyprus, scientific adviser to the DIKO Democratic Party, told The Times of Israel. “I’m a lot wiser.”

The delegation arrived on November 21 and was greeted by Talya Lador-Fresher, head of the Foreign Ministry’s European Division.

They spent a day on the Gaza border visiting the Kerem Shalom border crossing, an Iron Dome battery near Sderot, Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi and residents of Kibbutz Netiv HaAsara.

On Tuesday, they toured the Old City of Jerusalem and heard a briefing from Israel Police Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman. In the afternoon they met with coalition and opposition MKs, Science Minister Orit Farkash-Cohen and Foreign Ministry International Law Department head Tal Becker.

Israel Foreign Ministry legal advisor Tal Becker at the ICJ in The Hague, September 5, 2018 (UN Photo/Wendy van Bree. Courtesy ICJ)

The group visited Yad Vashem on Wednesday morning, then headed to Tel Aviv to meet with the EU’s envoy to Israel, Dimiter Tzantchev. Before flying out on Thursday, the lawmakers discussed Israel’s startup ecosystem with Jeremie Kletzkine, VP of Business Development at Start-Up Nation Central.

Josefin Wicklind, deputy international secretary of the Moderate Youth League – Swedish Young Conservatives, said that she was particularly impressed by the visit to Jerusalem.

“In spite of how there’s so many cultures and religions, they somehow make it work. And also the police work in Jerusalem, I was very impressed with that. And I’m going to take that as an inspiration for politics in Sweden.”

Christofi said that seeing communities on the Gaza border was especially meaningful. “The experience in Kerem Shalom and Sderot, that was something very, very important, it stuck with me. But I was very, very impressed at the Start-Up Nation center that we went to.”

“This is another thing I will take with me back to Cyprus,” he said.

Nico Marchetti, an MP from the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), said that a briefing by Becker on the history of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians helped him make sense of the current reality.

“He helped us to read between the lines on these sensitive issues,” said Marchetti. “It was extremely interesting and mind-opening to hear this information.”

Greek lawmaker Ioannis Sarakiotis, the shadow associate minister for development and investments, came to learn about Israel’s research and development, and defense capabilities. “Israel is a good example for many things,” said the 38-year-old MP.

Bilateral challenges

The young politicians indicated that ties between Israel and their countries, and with the European Union, are heading in the right direction, but clear challenges remain.

Wickling said that although the situation is improving somewhere, the media in Sweden is still slanted against Israel. “The narrative in Sweden is mostly that Israel is big and oppressing Palestine.”

Politicians from other countries, especially those in Israel’s neighborhood, painted a rosier picture.

“Israel is one of the most precious allies we have,” said Cyprus’s Christofi. “Similar concerns, similar challenges, similar headache in our neighborhood.”

“Israel and Greece are the two most important democracies in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Sarakiotis.

Cyprus’ scientific adviser to parliament Olympios Christofi (ELNET)

Relations between Israel and Austria are more complicated than most other European countries, said Marchetti. “Israel is a sensitive issue because of the history of the country. But at the moment we are talking more about the future and possible collaboration. I think it is a very, very good development.”

But ties with the EU are a different story, he explained.

“I think it’s very important to understand each other. I have a feeling that Israel says the Europeans don’t understand. But I also think Israel doesn’t understand the European Union, how it works.”

ELNET-Israel CEO Shai Bazak hopes that this group of parliamentarians can help build mutual understanding between Israel and Europe.

“We have made it our priority to strengthen the relationship between Israel and Europe and I believe that the best way to begin is with the future generation of leaders,” Bazak said.

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