The deputy prime minister of Vietnam visited Israel on Wednesday, prompting Jerusalem Post reporter Herb Keinon to delve into some fascinating trade statistics. Bilateral trade between Israel and Vietnam totaled almost $1.1 billion last year, a fivefold increase in just five years, and is now more than double Israel’s trade with Austria and four times its trade with Norway. In fact, Keinon later tweeted, Israel’s trade with Vietnam now exceeds its trade with 21 of the European Union’s 28 member states. And Vietnam is just one country; Israeli trade with other Asian countries has also burgeoned. All of which goes to show that one of Israel’s biggest Achilles’ heels – its economic dependence on an increasingly hostile Europe – is swiftly disappearing.
Taken as a whole, the EU is still Israel’s largest trading partner, but its lead has been shrinking rapidly as Israeli trade with other parts of the globe expands. Moreover, many of the European countries most hostile to Israel are among its least important trading partners. Norway, Sweden, and Ireland, for instance, would star in any list of the most hostile countries, yet each of them conducts less trade with Israel than Vietnam does. In other words, the countries that are most hostile to Israel tend to be those with relatively little ability to cause it economic harm.
Israel has long since ceased to count on Europe for diplomatic support. In international forums, many European countries reflexively back even the most outrageous anti-Israel resolutions, while even Israel’s best friends in Europe rarely do more than abstain. This past May, for instance, every EU country voted for a UN resolution declaring Israel the world’s worst violator of health rights (perhaps they think Israeli hospitals should stop treating Syrian war victims or cancer patients from Hamas-run Gaza?).
Nor does Israel depend on Europe militarily. As Haaretz reporter Anshel Pfeffer pointed out after Britain threatened to suspend arms exports to Israel during last summer’s Gaza war, such threats are so old hat that Israel long ago dropped Britain as a major military supplier. Ditto for most other European countries (the two exceptions being Germany and Italy). Today, Israeli defense imports from Britain consist mostly of spare parts that it could easily obtain elsewhere if necessary.
Thus, the one stick Europe still has with which to threaten Israel is economic. And as the recent decision to impose discriminatory labeling requirements on Israel shows, the EU bureaucracy is increasingly seeking to wield this stick.
Israel obviously can and should push back against such measures, and it has already scored some successes against the labeling decision. Hungary, for instance, flatly announced it will ignore the directive; Greece has also come out against it; Germany’s ruling party has denounced it, as has the president of the German parliament; and when German department store KaDeWe hastened to apply the new directive, the resultant outcry forced it into humiliating retreat a day later. All this fits a pattern I’ve noted before: Elected politicians, whose voters expect them to produce economic growth, tend to be much less enthusiastic about economic sanctions against Israel than EU bureaucrats, who aren’t answerable to any electorate.
Nevertheless, EU bureaucrats still wield a great deal of power, and they are likely to come up with more anti-Israel measures in the future. Thus over the long term, Israel’s best defense is to sharply reduce its economic dependence on Europe. And as the trade statistics with Vietnam show, Israel is making rapid strides toward doing exactly that.
Originally published in Commentary on December 3, 2015