‘Europe’s perception of Israel is finally beginning to shift’ — interview with Shai Bazak, ELNET-Israel CEO

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Read the original article in English or Hebrew at the Israel Hayom website.

The Democratic administration of US President Joe Biden takes Europe’s opinion of Israel very much into account. As such, the work of Shai Bazak, a former Israeli diplomat and currently CEO of ELNET-Israel, an organization dedicated to fostering Israeli-European ties, becomes that much more critical.

Earlier in his career, Shai Bazak was the media director for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the consul general in Miami and later in Boston, and head of the Jewish National Fund mission in London.

Most recently, he has been bringing his 25 years of experience as a diplomat to ELNET, a pro-Israeli nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening relations between Europe and Israel.

Q: With Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing that Britain is running out of hospital beds, and Germany’s health minister saying that the country is in the midst of the biggest crisis since World War II, it seems that the coronavirus crisis in Europe is out of control.

“There’s no doubt that the global health and economic crises are significant. There will be many opportunities when we emerge from it, but these are challenging times, even in Europe. At ELNET, a leading organization dedicated to strengthening relations between Europe and Israel, we recognize that because of the crisis there’s a lot of discussion about vaccines, and a few weeks ago, we brought in Israeli speakers who talked about ways to deal with the situation.

“We spoke at the health committee of the French Senate, and two weeks ago at the Senate of Poland, and soon we are heading to Germany, and hopefully also to Spain, Britain, and Austria. One of the speakers, for example, was Professor Ran Balicer,” he said, naming the founding director and chief innovation officer of Clalit Health Services.

“Europe wants to hear our story. The fact that our lives [in Israel] are computerized and HMOs can draw information from that is an advantage in this case. We are a small country, we do not have open borders, unlike some parts of Europe, so it [Europe] sees a great opportunity to learn from us, especially when it comes to vaccine management, but we still have to remain humble about it.”

Q: What are our top tips for Europe?

“Israeli experts place great emphasis on encouraging the public to get vaccinated, as some are skeptical of the effectiveness of the inoculation.

“We share with them that Israel is flexible, that we do not waste vaccines at the end of the day, but inform the citizens [that are not yet eligible] that there is some leftover, and they are welcome to come and get vaccinated. The Europeans listen to the vaccine experience Israel has gained during its campaign, and they conclude from it what is right for them.”

Q: This sounds like an opportunity to improve complex relations with European countries and the European Union.

“Through their interest and desire to listen, the coronavirus conversation is an opportunity to advance the relationship. Europe is vital to Israel. It may not be our close friend like the US, but it is a trade partner, even more than the US. Different countries think differently of Israel. Of course, some perceive Israel through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“At ELNET, we work with European leaders and policymakers. [Our work is] based on democratic values and common strategic interests. We are active in 21 European countries, and the primary purpose is to bring delegations of European legislators on get-to-know trips to Israel and promote dialogue between senior officials in Europe and Israel on strategic issues that are on the world’s agenda.

“Some of our activities now are online, because of the coronavirus, but others continue on the ground. For example, we’ve created a project in cooperation with the German government and Start-Up Nation Central to bring high-tech companies from Israel to Germany.”

Q: Is ELNET trying to get European countries to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization? Does Europe even have time for issues like that at the moment?

“We are currently busy with Islamic terrorism and Muslim extremism in Europe, as well as the Iranian issue, the Abraham Accords and the opportunities they present, and of course Hezbollah too. Even if it’s not the number one issue at the moment, because of the coronavirus, some Europeans continue to discuss it and are certainly disturbed by it.

“We are trying to get European countries to understand that Hezbollah is not only a threat to Israel, but to all of Europe because it smuggles drugs and launders money. We warn them of Shiite terrorism on the continent.

“We speak to Europeans in a language they understand. We show them the damage caused [by Hezbollah] to their continent, and not just Israel.

“More and more countries are beginning to boycott Hezbollah, both its political and military arms. Members of parliaments submit various bills on the matter. The goal of our well-connected affiliates in Europe is to meet with members of parliament and government officials and speak to them about the importance of the relations between Europe and Israel. Part of our work is also done in the US and Arab countries.”

“When European ambassadors went with us on tours to Israel’s borders, one of the representatives approached us because he heard us talking about Hezbollah. He asked us what could be done about the situation.

“We explained to him what could be done legally, with the help of an IDF spokesperson, and The Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy. In fact, that ambassador’s country eventually boycotted Hezbollah.”

Q: Why do you think it is hard for some European countries to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization?

“First, I have to say that 10 European countries have already recognized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and that is a respectable amount.

“To answer your question, every country has its own consideration. Let’s take France for example Lebanon has a special status [there,] there is a historical connection between the two countries and a sense of responsibility.

“Some countries want France to make a decision on the matter, others want the European Union to decide for them. It’s complex.”

Q: How about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It seems that the Abraham Accords have shifted the world’s understanding of the conflict, then why is it taking Europe more time to change its perception?

“Sometimes, Europe sees Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The countries that made peace with Israel and circumvented the Palestinian issue have taken away the Palestinians’ right to veto the Middle East peace process.

“That is just the beginning. We can already see a new perception in Europe according to which Israel is not the obstacle to peace in the Middle East, but is actually the key to it.

“The Palestinians thought that time was working in their favor. They thought the longer they had waited, the more they would have received. Suddenly it is clear that time was not working in their favor, and they must return to reality and compromise.

“So the Abraham Accords improved the relationship between Israel and Europe, and are changing the European perception of the Middle East. The way Israelis see the situation is also changing. All of a sudden, Arabs are portrayed as friends. All these things are creating a geopolitical shift of grand proportions, the results of which will only become later, as right now all our focus is on internal politics and dealing with the virus. Once we recover, we will see a completely different Middle East.”

Q: What about Europe’s position on the Iranian nuclear deal?

“This is where the United States comes into the picture. The change of the government has been a kind of an earthquake. The Republican administration doesn’t take Europe’s opinion of Israel that much into account. The Democratic administration of President Joe Biden, on the other hand, is very considerate of Europe’s view, including the Iran nuclear deal. It is clear that Europe’s opinion on this matter will have an impact.

“The US is considering its position on the JCPOA, and it seems that the new administration in Washington will give more weight to Europe’s opinion on the matter. Even though the Biden administration is friendly to Israel, Europe’s influence will be substantial. It makes our work that much more important.”

Q: Is the relationship between Israel and Europe improving, or is anti-Semitism on the rise?

“Quite a few parts of Europe have become friendlier with Israel. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the region exist, but in my opinion, the situation is changing.

“Islamic extremism constitutes one of the problems in Europe. Some of the Muslim immigrants who have flooded Europe in recent years arrive with a guest mentality. The thing is that many of them never integrate or accept the local culture. Moreover, they are trying to get their culture to dominate the local one.

“They are hostile towards Israel and the Jews, as well as the Western culture. When this extremism meets Europe’s ingrained anti-Semitism, an explosive combination is created. We’ve seen this with large demonstrations against Israel operating in Gaza, and in the terror attacks of Muslims against Europeans and Jews.

“We work to combat anti-Semitism and BDS as well, but there is a long road ahead of us.”

Q: The officials that you bring on get-to-know trips to Israel, how do they react? Do they learn about Israel?

“Very much so. I am in touch with Israeli ambassadors to Europe and European ambassadors in Israel. After they visit the south, for example, they always say, ‘until you see it with your own eyes, you can’t understand it.’

“They experience the dangers of rockets from the Gaza Strip, the terrorist tunnels, Hezbollah’s tunnels in the north. We can’t educate people. We can only show them the facts. Then they understand.”

Q: Not many know this about you, but you used to be a sniper in the IDF. You were in the army when the First Intifada broke out.

“That’s true. I served in many combat roles in the IDF. I was a combat soldier, a sniper, and a commander. I served in the Gaza Strip when the First Intifada broke out in 1987. I also served in Lebanon and on other fronts. I found myself in dangerous situations more than once. Some of them were even life-threatening.”

Q: That sounds terrifying.

“Absolutely. Sadly, I lost close friends during my military service. It taught me that we have to spare no effort to defend our country. It also taught me – as it does most Israelis – the value of peace and the efforts we must invest in both defending our country and striving for peace with our neighbors.”

Q: It is said that it takes a certain type of personality to become a sniper.

“That’s true. You need to possess peace of mind, patience, determination, and endurance.”

Q: Just like in diplomacy.

“Definitely.”