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European politics is following in Israeli footsteps

1 April 2017

10:00 AM

1 April 2017

10:00 AM

For Israelis, Europe’s political landscape is looking increasingly familiar. Whereas Israel was once seen as something of a political backwater, nowadays it’s European politicians who seem to be gazing across to Israel for inspiration. Those on the right are leading the way: from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders to Austria’s Norbert Hofer, this group of populist politicians are tending to see in Israel’s brand of nationalism a model for their own. In January, Le Pen spoke of a ‘patriotic spring‘ of nationalism in Europe; she went on to say that ‘we are experiencing the return of nation-states’. And who better to provide inspiration for that than Israel?

Le Pen – despite her father saying that the Holocaust was a ‘detail’ from history – has also been keen to talk up Israel: The National Front has always been Zionistic and defended Israel’s right to exist,’ Le Pen said in 2011. The Front National leader isn’t alone. Both Hofer and Wilders have expressed pro-Israel views. With Wilders, in particular, clear in his support for Israel. ‘Let us all support Israel. Always,’ he wrote on Twitter, ‘Israel is fighting for all of us’. For Wilders, who spent two years of his younger days in the country, Israel is ‘a place where I feel home’. It’s not only nostalgia which explains this connection, though. The Dutch firebrand has called Israel the ‘canary in the coal mine’ and says that the country is ‘the West’s first line of defence against Islam’.

Israel’s recipe of more muscular nationalism, a focus on security and an emphasis on borders clearly has something to say to European politics today amidst a surging tide of populism. That mixture is certainly going down well with voters who seem to be listening up; the support of right-leaning parties espousing these kind of views is hovering around the 20 per cent mark in a number of European countries. And while Wilders didn’t quite live up to his billing in the Dutch election, he still gained four seats. 

It’s not merely this Israeli brand of nationalism which is making hay among the European electorate, however. This growing support for parties on the right is also changing the way that those in the centre speak about politics. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen’s success in the polls has made her rivals toughen up their rhetoric. In Israel, this phenomenon has been happening for years, with the centre ground frequently adopting sterner language in order to compete at the ballot box. 

It hasn’t always been like this and the view of Israel as a source of inspiration for European politics is a relatively new one. In 2003, author Tony Judt called Israel an ‘anachronism’, and Judt went on to describe the country as a state ‘rooted in another time and place’. He spoke for many. For decades, Europhile commentators tended to think the consensus was that history was moving in one direction: away from nationalism and borders. Those who were sceptical of unfettered immigration or who sought a more robust demand for integration were seen as bittereinders; ignorant racists who were out of step with the times. Israel, in particular, was singled out for opprobrium, an apparently ugly reminder of 20th century nationalism and ethnocentrism.

Then, more recently, strange, supposedly ahistorical, events took place. The UK voted to leave the EU – a political earthquake whose aftershocks will be felt for years to come. Meanwhile, on the continent, the backlash against Europe’s migrant crisis is growing. Hungary’s fence, designed to keep out asylum-seekers, clearly took inspiration from the five-metre high fence Israel constructed along its border with Egypt in 2013, which it erected to stem the flow of migration from Africa. And other European countries are also eyeing Israel’s technology in walls. More broadly, the emphasis on security across the continent also makes European capitals increasingly resemble Israeli cities; with airports, train stations and public places across Europe looking more than ever like the type of security familiar to travellers in Tel Aviv over the last few decades. The fear of the lone-wolf attack, in Berlin or France, and now, it seems, in London, also mirrors the terror that Israel has wrestled with for decades – and the security services in Europe are increasingly eager to learn from Israel’s experience.

There are, of course, still significant differences between Israel, the UK and EU countries. Israel is engaged in a fifty year conflict with Palestinians and the culture is far more religious, with higher birthrates, than its western peers. However, the Israeli political landscape, with its plethora of parties and muscular assertion of national identity, looks increasingly likely to be a model of how politics in the West will look in the decades to come. Instead of knitting themselves together into a mythical progressive supra-collective, European states will return to nationalism, balkanisation of groups in society, and the decline of the traditional left and right, both of which have stagnated in the face of rising populism. In this globalised world, the political convergence and winds of change blowing through Jerusalem or Istanbul cannot be ignored in Berlin and London. Want to know what the future holds for Europe? You’d do worse than taking a look at Israel.


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