Since I arrived in Israel a couple of months ago I have been deeply impressed by
the vitality of your democracy, the dynamism of your people, your incredible
achievements made in such a relatively short history.
But I have also
been struck by some rather somber perceptions of EU-Israel relations both in the
media and in the political arena. I have heard allegations that Europe does not
care about Israel’s security; that it is obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and criticizing settlement expansion and that fundamentally Europe is
becoming increasingly less relevant for Israel.
It is time to place our
relations in their proper perspective and to set the record straight on a few
Yes, we do have areas in which we disagree – and I will not
evade them. And in Europe not all the news is good. Last week’s worrying report
by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, was an important reminder of the
continuing need for Europe to be vigilant in fighting against anti-Semitism in
all its forms.
Yet overwhelmingly, what unites the European Union and
Israel is far stronger than what might sometimes divide us. Israel and the EU
share a strong and dynamic relationship based on a long – and at times tragic –
common history. We have deeply shared values, including a commitment to
democracy, respect for human rights and market economic principles as well as
five decades marked by increasing and deepened cooperation in a wide variety of
The considerable mutual benefits flowing from this relationship
have become so intertwined in our daily lives that we almost take them for
granted. But it is important to recall a few of the ways in which we interact.
Visa-free travel allows for extensive human contacts and will become even more
affordable next spring where the recently concluded EU-Israel “Open Skies”
agreement takes effect.
Virtually all Israeli exports enjoy duty free
access to the EU’s internal market resulting in 30 billion euro in mutual trade
per year – more than Israel trades with anyone else in the world. The recent
successful visit by vice-president of the European Commission responsible for
industry, Antonio Tajani, at the head of a massive European trade delegation was
evidence that the EU is committed to expanding already strong commercial ties
with Israel’s dynamic and innovative economy.
CONVERSELY , BEING an
export-led economy, Israel has much to gain from further access to a market of
500 million consumers. Ties like these create a real win-win situation for both
Israel and Europe.
Over the years, Israel has joined numerous EU
Since the mid -1990s, Israel has been the only non-European
country to be fully associated to successive EU R&D programs – something
both Israel and Europe have benefitted tremendously from. It is therefore our
sincere hope that Israel will also participate in our new 80 billion euro
science and technology program – Horizon 2020 – to be launched in
In short, the EU has developed its relations with Israel more
than any other non-European country in the world: hardly an indication of
European hostility, nor of Europe being “irrelevant” to Israel.
area where we don’t always see eye-to-eye is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Although we share the objective of achieving a two-state solution, our positions
on how to achieve that have differed on a number of points.
mentioned before I have the impression that in the eyes of many Israelis, the
EU’s focus on the importance of a permanent settlement to the conflict is
regarded as something of a nuisance. Why, goes the argument, is the EU
“obsessed” with solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when it has proven so
difficult and when there are so many more urgent problems to be addressed
elsewhere in the region? Well, one important reason why we for long – longer
than most others – have been a strong supporter of the two-state solution is
because Israel is an ally and we care about its security. And we sincerely
believe that the vision of the State of Israel living in peace behind secure and
recognized borders side by side with a democratic, viable and contiguous
Palestinian state is the best possible guarantor of Israel’s
Given the backing of the Arab Peace Initiative this also
applies to the broader regional context. A resolution to the conflict would
certainly make it easier for Israel to make common cause with Arab neighbors in
confronting some of the real challenges in the region: not only on security
issues but also on cooperation ranging from environmental challenges to illegal
migration and trafficking.
If safeguarding Israel’s security and
improving its chances of integration in the region are among the positive
reasons for EU engagement in the MEPP, the negative effects of the status quo on
both parties are no less compelling a reason for European
When it comes to Israel, tough questions are being asked,
both here and in Europe. Can Israel achieve its aspiration to flourish as a
Jewish and democratic state without a resolution to the conflict? What price
will it pay in terms of its international reputation as long as it maintains a
military occupation? The European Union resists all calls for boycotts of Israel
but does Israel understand that the most effective response to campaigns of
deligitimization is to make sincere efforts to achieve a two-state solution? A
two-state solution is also in our – the EU’s – own strategic interest. We
believe that closing this key fault line would bring greater stability to a
volatile region situated on Europe’s doorstep. And yes, we want to see the
Palestinian state-building project, in which we have invested so heavily for 20
years, finally come to fruition: our support for the reforms and the development
of functioning institutions or for a professional Palestinian police force – to
name but two contributions.
For all these reasons and more, the EU
strongly supports the current US-backed direct peace negotiations and applauds
the political courage and statesmanship shown by both Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
that regional security challenges make it too risky a moment to try to end the
conflict at this time. We understand that there is no magic wand that will make
all the problems of the region disappear. And we are fully conscious of the
painful sacrifices that need to be made on both sides. But in our view, the
risks of inaction, for both Israelis and Palestinians, make it too risky not to
With this in mind, we have always considered it our duty to speak
out to our Israeli and Palestinian friends when we felt that actions were
neither in your own best interest nor in that of resolving the conflict. The
European Union has consistently condemned acts of terror and demanded that the
Palestinians immediately take action to rein it in. We have listed Hamas,
Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and others as terrorist
But, like your prime minister, we recognize President
Mahmoud Abbas as a partner. And we recognize his difficulty in persuading
ordinary Palestinians to support negotiations when they see Israeli settlements
expanding year after year. So, yes, we have opposed and will continue to oppose
Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
Not only because
settlement building is in contravention of international law but because it
physically complicates the implementation of a two-state solution, and
undermines trust that Israel is negotiating in good faith.
the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority we cannot remain oblivious to the
costs of the occupation – costs that the EU needs to cover in the form of
additional development and humanitarian aid. Settlements, and the security
measures accompanying them, lay claim to 60 percent of the West Bank. According
to the World Bank, easing restrictions on Palestinian activity in just 10% of
that area could add billions in revenue to the PA – more than Europe could ever
afford to donate.
So, both for legal and practical reasons the EU has
always been critical of settlement building. Consequently, it should not have
come as a surprise when the European Commission, in July, published the
so-called EU Guidelines which deny public funding from the EU budget to Israeli
entities that are established or wish to carry out projects beyond the 1967
In practice, the funding guidelines merely codify a longstanding
EU policy: to avoid using European tax payers’ money to fund activities in
As a result, their effect on the EU funding to Israeli
institutions, companies and organizations will be minimal. And, despite
misleading reports to the contrary, the Guidelines do not apply to individuals,
to national public authorities or to banks as conduits for loans.
it true that the Guidelines represent an attempt to pre-judge Israel’s future
borders. These will be decided through negotiations and, in the EU’s view, could
include mutually agreed land swaps. Once agreed borders are established, the
EU’s funding Guidelines will become redundant.
Discussions between the EU
and Israel on outstanding issues regarding the implementation of the guidelines
are currently being held in a constructive atmosphere. From the very outset, the
EU stated that it was prepared to discuss the precise modalities of
implementation of the Guidelines while stressing that their content should be
In this regard I would like to stress that the guidelines were
not the initiative of over-zealous “Brussels” bureaucrats: both EU foreign
ministers and the European Parliament were crystal clear on the need for the
European Commission to be explicit about the territorial scope of EU
As for criticism of too much focus on the Israeli- Palestinian
conflict, I would like to point out that the EU is not exactly sitting idle when
it comes to developments in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, all of which have
huge security implications for Israel.
Tough EU sanctions have hit the
Iranian economy hard and were essential in bringing Iran back to the table. The
EU is leading negotiations with Iran on behalf of the E3+3. It still remains for
the Iranian regime to reassure the international community that its program is
entirely peaceful. In Syria, the EU is actively involved in international
efforts to end the violence, eliminate chemical weapons and head towards a
peaceful and democratic transition.
The EU has so far allocated 400
million euro to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis.
Regarding Lebanon, earlier this year the EU listed Hezbollah as a terrorist
On Egypt, the High Representative Lady Ashton is
spearheading EU efforts to achieve a level of internal reconciliation that would
allow the country to function and stabilize its free-falling economy.
the midst of a turbulent region, the EU’s relations with Israel remain
A permanent resolution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians
would lead us to even higher levels: closer political cooperation with deeper
integration for Israel in the EU’s internal market and in EU’s programs and
The author is the EU ambassador-designate to Israel.