Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

From Manfred Gerstenfeld's
Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? (2005)

Israel and the New Accession States of the European Union

An Interview with Mark Sofer

On 1 May 2004, ten new countries were admitted into the European Union. Eight of these were Central and East European: the four Visegrad countries, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia; the three Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; and Slovenia. The other two new members were Cyprus and Malta.

"Conventional wisdom tells us that the accession of these countries to the EU is positive for Israel. For once, conventional wisdom may well be correct," comments Mark Sofer, the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry responsible for Central Europe and Eurasia, and the official in charge of overseeing Israel's diplomatic relations with the new EU entrants. He refers mainly to the eight East European countries, since the other two are located outside the Central European basin.

Sofer analyzes the attitudes of the eight new EU entrants toward Israel and what may be expected from them. He remarks that these countries do not operate as a bloc. They do not coordinate their foreign policies together within the EU or the United Nations, or toward the international community as a whole on any issue. He adds that in effect there are also no political subgroups such as the Visegrad or Baltic countries.

Common Overriding Characteristics

"From an Israeli viewpoint one should not look so much at a system of eight countries but rather at some common overriding characteristics. To some extent Slovenia is different from the others because it was part of Yugoslavia, which was not a Warsaw Pact Communist state. Furthermore, it had a very small Jewish community.

Sofer observes that Israel's relations with these countries are influenced by a number of factors. "First, in almost all there is a feeling of historical obligation toward Israel as a result of the Jews' fate there during the last century. These countries have moved into a new future. Their societies and governments are making every effort to distance themselves from the actions of their predecessors.

"Most had sizable Jewish communities that were decimated. Even if they deny blame - an attitude in some cases greatly unjustified - they realize that the Jewish people in their countries have suffered severely. Although public opinions are not monolithic and the countries' attitudes are influenced by their leaders at a given time, the issue of the moral debt is unlikely to dissipate totally in the immediate future."

Shaking off the Communist Past

"Second, all these countries want to shake off their Communist past and concentrate on their democratic present. The populations feel that they were overtaken by foreign elements. The three Baltic countries, which were part of the Soviet Union, are the most anti-Communist of all. Although Communist parties are still present, their policies have largely become socialist in nature.

"This means that the foreign policies of the past Communist governments are anathema to the present-day ones. Slovenia is again a bit different, since Yugoslavia considered itself socialist rather than Communist.

"The policy of the Communist world toward Israel was strongly anti-Zionist. After 1967, the Communist bloc broke off relations with Israel. Most East European leaders - then in their formative years - primarily remember this twenty-three-year period without Israeli representation until the end of Communism. Many will say during our conversations that because the Communists proclaimed that Zionism was extraordinarily bad, there must have been something very good in it."


"The third characteristic, which again one cannot look at in a monolithic way, is that these countries tend to hold a pro-American outlook. To a large extent, their pro-NATO approach is still stronger today than their pan-European approach. They made a headlong rush to join NATO, which is an important part of their transatlantic policy.

"In the eyes of many East Europeans, the Russian threat has not disappeared. This is particularly true in the Baltic countries with their large Russian minority. Russia is seen as the successor of the Soviet Union, indicating that the perception of a threat can be larger than its reality.

"The East European countries also feel that the Americans helped them far more than anyone else to escape the Soviet yoke. Israel is seen as being firmly part and parcel of the American camp. At the same time, the East European leaders perceive American Jewry as influential. They view this in a positive light rather than linking it to the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In their desire to get close to the U.S., they deem Israel a possible conduit to do so."

No Muslim Minorities

"A fourth characteristic of all East European EU entrants is the absence of significant Muslim minorities. In this they differ from most West European EU members. There is no Muslim lobby such as in France, the UK, or even Germany.

"There are also no romantic perceptions of the Arabs resulting from a colonial history in the Middle East. The 'Lawrence of Arabia' type of view does not exist in Eastern Europe. The close relationship between the Communist and Arab worlds is another element of the past they want to throw off.

"These countries have few economic interests in the Arab world. They purchase little oil from there. In some of them Arab diplomatic representation is almost nonexistent."

Building Democracy

"A fifth characteristic of the new entrants is that many of them are building democracy, perhaps for the first time. For them this is an important matter, not a given like in Britain or France. Parts of their populations have only known Nazi German and Communist Party rule, even in the Czech Republic or Hungary, which were democratic at some time in the past. They appreciate the freedoms that democracy signifies, in contrast with totalitarian Communism.

"Many of our counterparts tell us that they have a natural affinity with Israel because they recognize it as being the only democratic society in the Middle East, as opposed to the Arab countries.

"A sixth important point that characterizes these countries is the issue of public opinion. It is not actually a secret that large parts of Western opinion are not friendly toward Israel. Public opinion polls in many of the new accession states show overwhelming support for Israel, a trend that is sadly unthinkable in the public opinion climate of Western Europe.

"Even if one believes that public opinion only influences governments to a limited extent, these figures indicate a positive climate in these eight countries that can benefit Israel."

No Euphoria

Sofer cautions, however, that Israel should temper its expectations as far as political support from the new entrants is concerned. He mentions several reasons, the first being that the Middle East in general, and Israel in particular, are not priorities in these governments' foreign policies. "These countries are geographically distant. They have their own difficulties and problems, mainly in the Balkans or vis-à-vis Russia. The Middle East does not dominate and sometimes hardly enters their day-to-day thinking.

"Another important aspect is that only Poland, the sixth most populated country in the EU - with close to forty million people - is considered large by European standards. Hungary, the next in size, has about ten million citizens. Small countries have little influence or even independence as far as EU policymaking goes. European thinking on the Middle East will continue to be led by the large countries: France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain. These are traditionally dominant in developing European foreign policy. The others will go along with them especially in the earlier stages.

"Third, as said before, the East European countries do not operate as a bloc and this means their influence on European policy and thinking toward the Middle East is even smaller than it might have been."

Group Dynamics

"Yet another factor is that group dynamics in the EU create pressure to toe the line. This exerts considerable influence, especially on the new countries still learning how to work within the European system. Being part of the consensus is very important for them. Maybe in fifteen or twenty years they will feel confident enough to break it.

"As a last point, there is a distinct weakening of the pro-Atlantic sentiment within these countries. This may develop very quickly because the economic, cultural, and social benefits that accrue to them from being in the EU are very strong. They want to feel part of a geographical home, and one senses this when visiting there.

"One may counter by saying that Great Britain, after decades in the EU, hasn't lost its pro-American sentiment. However, it is a large country and doesn't allow Europe to be all-intrusive in its life."

What Can One Expect?

In response to the question of what, then, can truly be expected from these countries, Sofer's overall assessment is: "The entrance of these countries into the European Union is positive, but Israel should not expect major changes in EU policies toward it." He adds: "What can one expect? As these countries joined the EU only in spring 2004, it is too early to make detailed predictions.

"Some prudent forecasts can, however, be made. The atmosphere of internal discussions in the EU will change somewhat. The countries that now are relatively friendly toward Israel will receive backing from the new entrants. If Great Britain and Germany are considered the more pro-Israeli major countries in Europe, they will have additional allies. These new entrants will not be supporting the approach of some of the more politically distant countries of the EU.

"On some occasions there is a split in the European voting patterns on Israel. In such cases one can expect the new entrants to vote with the ones taking a more positive stance on Israel. Shortly after they joined the EU, there was a vote concerning Israel in the World Health Organization. The EU could not reach a common foreign policy understanding and split down the middle. All eight new countries voted on the British-German side which was the more positive of the two."

Economic Relations

Sofer also points out that there are substantial economic relations between Israel and several of the new accession countries to the EU. "Israeli investment in Poland is in the magnitude of $1.5 billion. In Hungary and the Czech Republic each, it is over $1 billion. Much of that is in productive job-creating investments.

"Such developments influence relations. Israeli-Polish dialogue is very strong. Earlier in 2004 President Aleksander Kwasniewski received in Israel his first honorary doctorate ever, from the Hebrew University. He specifically wanted it to be from an Israeli university, an act that has more than symbolic value for a Polish president. In the same year, President Katsav paid a state visit to Hungary. There are ongoing exchanges of visits at the level of foreign ministers and other high-ranking public figures from almost all the accession states.

"While we should not ignore the anti-Semitism that still exists among certain parts of society in some of these countries, we must also stress that it is not the official, institutionalized anti-Semitism that was common there in their earlier histories of the last century.

"A Lithuanian newspaper in 2004 published anti-Semitic articles of a kind we have rarely seen elsewhere since the Second World War. It also printed a caricature Goebbels would have been proud of. However, contrary to the past the Lithuanian government, as have other governments faced with similar phenomena, is working avidly to fight this anti-Semitism."

Future Entrants

Sofer also briefly addresses the attitudes toward Israel of the countries that will join the EU at a future stage. These include Romania and Bulgaria, due to enter in 2007, and possibly Croatia. "Israel has excellent political, economic, and cultural relations with Romania. There is more trade between the two countries than Israel has with Poland even though the latter's population is almost double that of Romania. Israeli investment in Romania, though, is substantially smaller than in Poland. At the same time, we have an ongoing discourse with Romania about Holocaust-related issues.

"Also Bulgarian-Israeli ties are very friendly both at government and at 'street level.' One high-ranking official told me tongue-in-cheek that if you ask a thousand Bulgarians whether they support Israel or the Palestinians and one says that he favors the Palestinians, it means he did not understand the question. One feels this attitude also in the newspapers. With Bulgaria, also, the restitution issue is settled.

"Israel also has excellent relations with Croatia. There are regular visits of ministers and in general the picture augurs well for the future, too.

"To sum up, in the new countries that have joined the EU and those that will do so, we see an overall approach to Israel that is positive. Both our official and personal bilateral relations bear this out."

Sofer adds: "As far as the future is concerned, I think in the end much depends on Israel itself. We must be prepared to work closely with these countries on all levels, and put the required resources into our relationship. Indeed, I would say that the economic and political resources we place in these countries as well as the public relations are crucial. The goodwill exists on both sides and it is up to us all to capitalize on it."

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Mark Sofer is deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry responsible for Central Europe and Eurasia. He was born in London and holds a B. Sc in economics and international relations from the London School of Economics, and an MA in international relations from the Hebrew University. He joined the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 1981 and has held diplomatic positions in Peru, Norway, and New York. His latest posting was as ambassador to Ireland from 1999-2002. In the early 1990s he was policy adviser to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.