The Romanian government is considering following Trump’s controversial move to relocate the United States (US) embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, affecting Romania’s proclaimed neutral role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The move of the Romanian embassy is yet another episode in the conflict between the government led by Social Democratic Party (PSD) and President Iohannis.
The initiative to move the Romanian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, has divided the country into two different camps: those who want to follow the European Union’s (EU) stance of maintaining the international consensus on Jerusalem (a city whose Eastern side is considered Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory) and those who want to follow US policy.
US President Donald Trump set a precedent when he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem on 14 May, recognising the disputed city as the capital of Israel. This resulted in numerous negative reactions across the Middle East and beyond.
The day marked Israel’s 70th anniversary as well as 70 years since the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their land, known as the Nakba (catastrophe) in Arabic. It notably saw the brutal repression by the Israeli state of a grassroots protest organized in Gaza to commemorate the Nakba, killing over 60 Palestinians.
Romania was one of the four EU member states to accept the invitation to participate in the inaugural ceremony lead by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, in contrast to the other 24 EU countries that declined.
Romania, together with Hungary and the Czech Republic, had previously blocked the EU from publishing a statement aimed at demonstrating a united front against the US move. An Austrian envoy was also sent to the inauguration of the US embassy. The Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared the proposed EU statement, which called for the status of Jerusalem to be resolved through peace negotiations, “unbalanced”.
Romanian authorities disallow protest against the initiative
Meanwhile, the Romanian-Palestinian Solidarity group told Global Voices that they had not received authorisation to organise protests in the capital. Authorisation for protests is given by the office of the mayor of Bucharest, a position which is held by Gabriela Firea, a member of Social Democratic Party (PSD) and a former journalist.
However, Romanian solidarity has been demonstrated outside the Palestinian embassy where a memorial for the victims in Gaza was arranged.
With regard to the embassy move, the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejects that of the EU and reflects the government’s stance. The government is ruled by the PSD and acts as the opposition to centre-right President Klaus Iohannis.
Iohannis has made it clear that he is against moving the Romanian embassy to Jerusalem because it would change Romania’s position as a neutral broker to an active participant in the conflict. This rift over the embassy highlights the divisions which exist in domestic politics as well as the miscommunication and mistrust that exists between the government and the Presidency.
A controversial visit to Israel
In April, social democrat leader Liviu Dragnea announced a secret memorandum deciding to move the embassy to Jerusalem without consulting the President. The announcement was followed by a visit to Israel by Dragnea and Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă.
Video: Romanian PM Viorica Dăncilă, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Romania Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodor Meleșcanu arriving in Israel.
President Iohannis claimed the memorandum went against the Romanian constitution and legislation which gives the President the power to make decisions on foreign affairs and international law. He also stated that Dragnea and Dăncilă did not have a mandate to visit Israel on such matters and called for Prime Minister Dăncilă’s resignation.
A statement from the Presidential Administration read that the President is responsible for the major decisions regarding international politics.
The attendance of Romanian officials without a mandate at the inauguration of the US embassy had swift repercussions at home. The leader of the National Liberal Party, Ludovic Orban filed a criminal complaint against Dăncilă, accusing her of high treason. Dragnea claimed the complaint can be labelled institutional antisemitism.
Palestine recalls ambassador from Romania
The Palestinian ambassador, Fuad Kolaly was called back home, disturbing the calm diplomatic relationship between Bucharest and Ramallah. Ambassador Kolaly declared that Romania has historically played a balanced role in the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and its intention to relocate the embassy goes against international law as well as UN Security Council resolutions.
A statement released by the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which the government’s support of the two state solution was reinforced, asked where the capitals of the two states would be. This references the fact that supporters of a two-state solution hope to have a future Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
In conversation with the Romanian press, the Ambassador said Palestine does not want to break away from Romania due to the fact that around 3,500 Palestinians live in the country. He also added that he feels encouraged by the fact that the decision ultimately lies in the hands of the President.
Rift over embassy influences domestic politics
It is unclear what reasons are behind the decision to relocate the embassy and what the social democrats would gain from it. Many critics were quick to call Dragnea out for seeking a closer relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu who is facing accusations of corruption in Israel.
Romania is itself notorious for corruption and has been struggling to recover from post-communist trauma since the regime lead by Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown in 1989. Since it joined the EU in 2007, many have argued that the country has been on the right track towards tackling corruption, despite the fact that it has also been undermined from within the political system.
Dragnea has been convicted of electoral fraud, abuse of public office and forgery. The National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) has opened an investigation into alleged fraud committed by him with EU funds. RISE Project, a Romanian investigative journalism organisation revealed that Dragnea was being investigated in Brazil for money laundering, an accusation the social democrat leader dismissed as false.
Dragnea lead PSD to victory in the 2016 parliamentary elections and has since appointed puppet Prime Ministers to act on his behalf as his convictions do not allow him to fulfill the role himself. The Prime Minister has changed three times since 2017 and the position is currently held by Viorica Dăncilă, the first woman in Romanian history to hold the position.
Dăncilă, who grew in rank under Drangea’s protection, has been criticized for being under-qualified for this role, despite her time as a member of the European Parliament. The President has also accused her of receiving orders from her party.
In January 2017, Romania erupted into the largest protests since the anti-communist revolution of 1989. Over 500,000 people protested against ordinance bills passed by the Ministry of Justice which proposed to amend the Penal Code and Penal Procedure in order to pardon certain crimes, particularly those related to the abuse of power. Opponents to the ordinance accused its creators of trying to decriminalise corruption by the government and claimed it was an attempt by people, like Dragnea, to escape criminal prosecution.
The protests were criticised both by the PSD and by television channels serving as PSD’s main propaganda platform. Anchors claimed the protesters had been paid by the American-Hungarian Jewish philanthropist George Soros and that the protests were a conspiracy by “the deep state.” (Editor's note: Global Voices is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations, part of the Soros network.)
This is similar to the anti-Soros rhetoric found in nearby countries, notably in Hungary under the rule of Viktor Orbán. Hungarian ruling national conservative and right-wing populist party Fidesz follows a similar pattern, feeding off the rise of the far right and its rhetoric which mixes antisemitism, when Soros is concerned, and Islamophobia, in regard to the refugees.
This type of rhetoric is often shifting and inconsistent, and depends on the evaluation of what type of hate speech would provide most support with the electorate at a given moment. Therefore, many European populists, while expressing antisemitism at home, also exalt Israel as an example of how a state should deal with Muslims, and support its role in the Middle East. Stoking xenophobia against refugees (presented as Muslim menace) has been a major element of populist rise across the continent, from Poland to Macedonia to Slovenia.
Dragnea's visit to Israel has raised suspicions that his party attempts to distance Romania from the EU, which has issued warnings about corruption and disregard of EU regulations. Natenyahu's support would seemingly bring Dragnea closer to the US right-wing establishment behind President Trump's administration, providing powerful allies. This movement is similar to euro-skeptic governments like Hungary's Fidesz and Austria's ÖVP-FPÖ alliance, which had been trying to gain support from the US conservatives also.
While the controversies over the possible move of the Romanian embassy in Tel Aviv is yet another episode in the domestic conflict between the PSD-ALDE-led government and President Iohannis, it now affects Romania’s proclaimed neutral role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At a debate in Bucharest on the embassy move on 17 May, Haaretz's Gideon Levy warned Romania against assuming such a big role by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The audience and moderator regurgitated pro-Israeli government rhetoric by constantly mentioning Hamas and Palestinian “terrorism” against Israel, completely disregarding the brutalities of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and discriminatory policies which have been likened to apartheid.
Mixing xenophobia and taking sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict exploits the fear of Muslim refugees among many Romanians, enabling the government to take such a big and controversial step.