Benjamin Netanyahu has promised the Israeli people a referendum on joining the European Union, after Brussels said a space was up for grabs after Britain leaves.
The prime minister, fighting corruption allegations during an election countdown, made the comment during a press conference about the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Israel in May.
“The EU thinks Israel should replace the UK after March,” said Netanyahu, in reply to a question about visits by European countries and reports that some were still considering boycotting the event. “If they want us to replace Britain, it would seem strange to boycott us.”
Pressed on Israel’s possible membership of the EU, he said: “I will put it to the people of Israel in a referendum after the [Eurovision] show. Brussels is upbeat on the economy.
“It feels the eurozone will enjoy a feast of lots of trade deals in the coming years, which Israel could then be party to, so we need to think about it.”
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Diplomats and ministers from the UK and Israel have in recent years increasingly stressed their bilateral relations, and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox this year agreed the UK’s first post-Brexit trade deal with his Israeli counterpart.
News of the EU’s offer, which was pointedly not denied in Brussels, appears to have distracted Israel’s attention from Britain in the past few days, as the latest figures showed EU-Israel trade at record levels.
Esther Giaufret, the EU’s ambassador to Israel, said: “We are the world’s largest internal market, the closest market to Israel and the best business environment. With Israel’s innovative and thriving economy, this match makes sense.”
The new best friends also launched an online helpdesk to “facilitate trade and investment between the EU and Israel” and to set up a “contact point in the Israeli ministry of economy and industry”.
Giaufret was recently named diplomat of the year by the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel. The UK’s ambassador, David Quarrey, said Giaufret’s award was “fully deserved”.
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