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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The plan to upgrade Israel-European Union ties is stuck, but not frozen, the Czech Republic's Ambassador Michael Zantovsky said on Monday as he dismissed concerns that the plan might be thwarted due to the more hard-line diplomatic stance of Israel's new government.
"It is in the best interest of Israel not to make self-fulfilling prophecies - in the end it could amount to that," he told a Jerusalem audience at the start of a two-day symposium marking 50 years of European-Israeli ties.
The event, organized by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Israel, Ben-Gurion University and the EU, comes weeks after European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner warned that the upgrade would not move forward until Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government declared its commitment to a two-state solution.
Progress on the upgrade was also delayed this winter as a result of the IDF offensive in the Gaza Strip.
On Monday, Zantovsky, whose country holds the EU presidency, said that since arriving at the 50th anniversary event he had heard the word "frozen" at least five times.
"I shudder every time it is pronounced. There is no formal decision to freeze the upgrade. Okay, it's held back in traffic a little, and admittedly there have been some difficulties, but that is very different from deciding that there will be a freeze," he said.
It had initially been expected that a jointly negotiated action plan to upgrade EU-Israel ties could be adopted by the EU-Israel Association Council this month, but the meeting was delayed until June.
EU Ambassador Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal told the symposium that the EU was not rushing to judgment when it came to Netanyahu's government and that it respected the foreign policy review that Israel was undertaking.
Responding to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's request upon taking office that the international community should not stand over Israel with a stop-watch, Cibrian-Uzal said, "I come today without a watch." He held up his arm to show that, indeed, there was no timepiece on his wrist.
"Israel can have all the time it needs for the policy review," Cibrian-Uzal said. "What we have is expectations that the results of the policy review will be positive and will allow us to continue with the upgrade."
When quizzed later by The Jerusalem Post on whether he meant to link the upgrade with a policy decision by the government, Cibrian-Uzal backed away from the word "link," in favor of the word "context."
"The EU has declared that it sees the upgrading in a context that is characterized by the mutual interest of Israel and the EU to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states," said Cibrian-Uzal, adding that "the EU hopes the ongoing policy review will confirm a conducive context."
Zantovsky noted that documents connected to the upgrade did not link it with Israeli policy, despite a push by some European countries to do so.
"The linkage is not there, but the context is," he said.
During the symposium both Cibrian-Uzal and Zantovsky clarified that outside of the issue of the upgrade, Israel and EU relations continued to progress along their normal track of close, cooperative ties.
Cibrian-Uzal added that Israel had one of the closest possible relationships with the EU of any non-member state. De facto, Israel already had a special status as a neighbor country, enjoying the kind of cooperation with the EU that countries such as Egypt only dreamed of having, he said.
Israel had been able to maximize its ties with the EU because of its advanced economy, industry and technology, he said. It was an important trading partner, Cibrian-Uzal explained; it participates in science, research, technology and development projects as if it were a member state.
Zantovsky added, "I want to deny that there is an explicit linkage between political progress as seen by the EU and the fundamental EU-Israeli relationship."
The relationship between the two parties, he said, had continued to grow in spite of disagreements on issues such as settlements and the West Bank security barrier.
Cibrian-Uzal said that while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was an important aspect of Israel's relationship with the EU, it was not the whole relationship.
However, he said there were steps that Israel could take on the ground that would influence the current relationship in a positive or negative direction. The possibility of a decline in the relationship did exist, he said, even though he hoped the strong bilateral relationship would continue.
Two critical issues in this regard, Cibrian-Uzal said, were a restrained response by Israel to attacks, and a commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state.
"Restraint is one of the important conditions in order to maintain a fluid and positive relationship with the EU. When there is restraint - and there has been plenty of restraint in the past five or six years - things are easier across the board," he said. "The second [condition] is the hope that your Palestinian neighbors will be able to live one day normal lives in their own state."
Christian Berger of the European Commission's Jerusalem office added that the EU had already put a lot of effort and money into that future state by helping to create the structure and infrastructure of what they hoped would be a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state.
But in the last two years, the bulk of that money had gone to humanitarian expenses and salaries, with very little being done on development, Berger said.
The European Commission alone spent â‚¬500 million a year on the Palestinians, Berger said.
Increasingly, Berger said, people in Europe wanted to know, "Where is the end of the conflict, and when can we stop paying?"