BRUSSELS – Ties with Israeli remain strong in spite of recent European Union measures to clarify and tighten its long standing opposition to West Bank settlements, European Union officials told Israeli journalists in Brussels this week.
Many of them spoke off the record with the journalists, brought to Brussels by the EU so they could better understand its wide range of bi-lateral economic, research and cultural ties with Israel – worth hundreds of millions of euros.
“There is no other country with whom we have a deeper and broader relationship than with Israel,” one official said.
The officials tried to reassure the journalists concerned by its constant criticism of West Bank settlements and its publication last year of settlement guidelines clarifying its position against offering funds and grants to entities located over the pre-1967 lines.
They explained that this was not a boycott of Israel and that it would not lead to a boycott, which they opposed, as does the EU, the officials said.
The guidelines, they said, were an expression of the EU’s opposition to settlement activity and its understanding that such actions are illegal under international law.
One of the few to speak on the record, Angela Liberatore, deputy head of unit of Southern Neighborhood in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research and Innovation, spoke of Israel’s participation in EU programs over the last five years, such as Horizon 2020.
Israel participated in 1,536 projects and benefited from €782 million in funding from the EU, in its Seventh Framework Program for Research and Technological Development (FP-7) that ended in 2013, Liberatore said.
While 21.1 percent of Israeli institutions applying were accepted, the average application success rate for those in EU member states was 20.9 percent she said.
But not everyone in the EU had a positive spin on the situation.
Bastiaan Belder, who heads the European Parliamentary Delegation for relations with Israel, sang a different tune when he spoke with the journalists on Wednesday.
The EU’s positions on the conflict has favored the Palestinians and strengthened their stances at the negotiating table with Israel, said Belder, of the Netherlands who is a member of Europe’s Freedom and Democracy group.
“In my view what the EU has done for years already is to strengthen the Palestinian position,” Belder said. Ideally a policy position should be balanced.
But conclusions from the EU’s council of foreign ministers and the resolutions from its parliament show, “a lot of criticism on the Israeli side and too little on the Palestinian side.”
The guidelines on West Bank settlements, he said, are among the EU measures he opposes.
“I am totally against the guidelines. The guidelines do not help the peace process and do not improve the situation on the ground,” he said, adding that when they were published, the European Friends of Israel wrote an open letter against them.
Should the talks fail, he said, Europe would blame Israel. “The guilty is already appointed.”
Margrete Auken, vice chairwoman of the European Parliament’s relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council who also spoke with the group on Wednesday, said that she supported the guidelines and did so as a friend of Israel.
“I consider myself pro-Israel. Some of my best friends are Israelis. Some of the journalists I rely most on are Israelis,” said Auken of Denmark, who is a member of the Greens and the European Free Alliance.
“We see ourselves as friends of Israel. The two state solution is the only solution for the survival of Israel as a modern democratic state,” she said referring to those who support the guidelines.
Part of the problem is Israeli diplomacy, which fails to sway public opinion, she said.
“Israeli diplomacy creates enemies everywhere,” Auken said.
“What most of the Western world is saying now, is that time is running out for the survival of Israel” without a two state solution, she said.
She was surprised, Auken said, by Israel’s shock over the guidelines.
Europe could not have been more clear about its stance on West Bank settlements.
“Settlements are illegal. It is illegal for the EU to have [cooperative ties] with Illegal places,” she said.
Failure to do so, would give West Bank settlement products preferential treatment, Auken said.
She said that she “strongly” opposed a political boycott of Israel and added that EU steps against West Bank settlements should not be confused with a boycott, because they are legal measures against an illegal action.
Political boycotts are seldom useful, it is must better to make use of legal instruments, she said. If Israel has an objection to the guidelines it can sue the EU in court.
There are times, Auken said, that she believes the best act of protest would be for the European Union to stop investing in the West Bank; leaving Israel with no choice but to be financially responsible for the Palestinians, particularly given that it is an “economic power,” she said.
Certainly, what is most likely, is that unless a diplomatic solution is reached, the Palestinians will seek a unilateral solution at the United Nations, Auken said.
Hannu Takkula, a member of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Israel said part of the problem was that people were simply misinformed about the conflict.
“They have [a mistaken] notion that once there was an independent Palestinian state and then Israel came and occupied it,” said Takkula of Finland who is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
He said he liked to believe that the European Parliament was split, with half its members supporting Israel and the remainder favoring the Palestinians.
“There are a lot of pro-Israeli people here and it is good to remember that,” Takkula said.