Charles Tannock MEP and Greg Hands MP: Israel needs our support and friendship more than ever
Charles Tannock is an MEP for London and vice-chairman of European Friends of Israel; Greg Hands is MP for Chelsea and Fulham.
The political turbulence in Egypt worries us all, but no-one is more concerned than Israel. The Middle East's lone democracy is afraid that its 32-year peace treaty with Egypt is at risk of unravelling. War would be a strong possibility if the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood seized power in Cairo. In any case, Israel will have to draw military resources towards the Sinai, thus reducing its forces on the northern front and thereby encouraging the fanatics of Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Israel needs friends, and never more so than now. It was therefore heartening for us last weekend to be part of the second policy conference of the European Friends of Israel (EFI) and to see so many influential policymakers gathering together to express their solidarity with the Jewish state. The conference brought together over 300 parliamentarians and a distinguished list of five former prime ministers and presidents (including Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland).
EFI is an organisation established along the lines of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), which is renowned in our party for its influence and strength. Although EFI is non-partisan it is true that more of its members come from the right than the left of the political spectrum. EFI, which was set up in 2007, has the motto 'democracy, peace, dialogue': democracy, because it is important to emphasise the fundamental values that Israel and the EU share; peace, because EFI supports Israel's own overriding goal of making peace with its neighbours; and dialogue, because EFI not only encourages dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians but it promotes dialogue between like-minded parliamentarians.
In fact, the great strength of EFI – particularly from Israel's point of view – is its network of committed parliamentarians from across Europe. EFI focuses much of its lobbying effort on the EU and the European Parliament, which enacts much of the legislation effecting EU-Israel trade relations. However, it is also active in individual member states’ parliaments and some countries that are outside the EU (e.g. Ukraine) and even countries outside the Council of Europe (e.g. Kazakhstan).
The EFI policy conference represented an opportunity to review the latest developments in EU-Israel relations, to examine the state of the peace process and to analyse some of the strategic challenges facing Israel, of which the tumult in Egypt is just one.
Fortunately, and despite all the efforts of Israel's enemies to isolate the Jewish state internationally, the EU-Israel relationship is robust and thriving. In between conference sessions participants had the chance to see at first hand Israel's hi-tech prowess in the fields of aerospace, engineering, software, water management and agriculture.
Israel is therefore a natural partner for the EU in its efforts to develop 'smart' growth founded on a knowledge-based economy. Nevertheless, the latest milestone in EU-Israel relations – the so-called ACAA accord, which concerns the mutual recognition and acceptance of technical standards in the pharmaceutical industry and other sectors – is being held up in the European Parliament by the anti-Israel lobby. MEPs now have co-decision powers with member states in this policy field, which explains why EFI has made an effort to inform and engaging with the European Parliament.
Sadly the peace process remains at a standstill, and there was little optimism among the participants or our Israeli hosts that the situation would improve in the short-term. The instability in Egypt is hardly conducive to a resumption of negotiations. However, as long as there are leaders like Shimon Peres in Israel, there is surely a glimmer of hope.
President Peres was the guest of honour at the EFI gala dinner. His wife had recently died, and we were surprised that he agreed to attend the event. At the most, we were expecting a few platitudes and anecdotes. Instead, we were treated to a highly political speech from this remarkable statesman, who reiterated his country's determination to build a permanent peace with its neighbours and a two-state solution to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. It was hard to escape the thought that even at 87, President Peres – a politician for more than 60 years – found his largely ceremonial role somewhat constrictive politically. The man who does have political responsibility for the peace process, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, himself gave a barnstorming speech to conclude the conference.
The conference also discussed some of the key strategic challenges that Israel faces. Some of these challenges Israel shares with Europe, for example economic and monetary stability and the threat of Islamist jihadi terrorism. Others, such as water management, are regional, and demand Israel's engagement with its neighbours.
One of the most serious strategic obstacles facing Israel is the constant efforts by its enemies to isolate and delegitimize the country in the eyes of the international community. And it is in response to this challenge that EFI can perhaps by most helpful, by aiming to neutralise the organised propaganda and misinformation battle waged by the anti-Israel lobby.
We came back from Israel reinvigorated and determined to ensure – both at Westminster and in Brussels – that through EFI and CFI, Israel's alliance with Britain and Europe will grow stronger and more durable. At this time of tension, those of us who are friends of Israel need to redouble our efforts to support our democratic partner and rebalance a debate that has for far too long been poisoned by misinformation and hostility.