Pundits would have been dismissed as clueless had they predicted a decade ago that in a critical European Union discussion on the Middle East, Greece and Cyprus would emerge as the countries that would – in the words of US President Barack Obama – “have Israel’s back.”
Greece and Cyprus? Two countries that for decades were arguably the most pro-Palestinian countries in Europe? Two countries that could be counted on to regularly bash Israel? They were all of a sudden going to come to Israel’s diplomatic aid? No way.
Yet that is exactly what happened this week when Greece and Cyprus led a charge of about half a dozen eastern and southern European states to block the passage of language in an EU resolution on the Middle East “peace process” that would have enshrined the idea of differentiation of the territories from Israel, a move that could have triggered a slew of measures that would make the recent labeling of settlement products seem tame by comparison.
Differentiation or distinction is an idea being pushed by some policy wonks in Europe as a way to force Israel’s hand on the settlements.
The overriding idea is to draw a firm legal line between pre- and post-1967 Israel, and have EU relations with Israel reflect that line. The labeling of products from the settlements is one example of this type of distinction; drawing up guidelines on EU funding for Israel’s involvement in the EU’s flagship Horizon 2020 R&D program is another.
Last July, just after the 28 foreign ministers making up the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council adopted conclusions on the Middle East, the London-headquartered pan-European think tank called the European Council on Foreign Relations published a paper titled “EU Differentiation and Israeli Settlements.”
“Differentiation is one of the most impactful tools at the EU’s disposal for challenging the incentive structure underpinning Israeli support for the status quo,” the paper read. “The EU and its member states must acknowledge and own differentiation as a fully- fledged policy by giving it a name and referencing it in official statements issued at the senior political level.”
The idea was to “differentiate between Israel and its settlements project in the day-to-day conduct of bilateral relations” and exclude any Israeli activity beyond the 1967 lines from the “depth, breadth and closeness of European-Israeli ties.”
“One consequence of Oslo’s failure is that in Israel there is now something of a consensus that the settlement enterprise can be managed and expanded without incurring any tangible costs,” the paper read. “Consequently, Israel’s political leaders and voting public can discount the OPTs [Occupied Palestinian Territories] and settlement issue to an unprecedented degree as they go about their daily lives, make their political choices, and set their governing policies.”
The idea of differentiation, therefore, is to make the Israeli public feel the heat.
The paper suggested ways to carry out this “differentiation.”
Among the ideas were preventing European banks from providing finance to their Israeli counterparts with dealings in the settlements; preventing Israelis holding dual European citizenship from using property in the settlements as collateral for European loans; doing away with the tax-exempt status for European charities funding activities in the settlements; and not accepting qualifications from academic, medical and other Israeli institutions based in the West Bank.
Since east Jerusalem would fall into the category of territories that needed to be differentiated, this meant that the EU – as part of this policy – would also not be able to deal with Israeli institutions based there, such as the Justice Ministry and Israel Police headquarters.
At the time, the Foreign Ministry did not respond to the paper, saying it did not feel the need to react to every research paper published by one research institute or another.
But this research institute is not just a fly-by-night operation, and its papers often inform EU policy-making.
Its website lists under the “experts” category three people who deal with Israel, one of whom is Dimi Reider, who writes as well for the hardleft +972 Magazine. Left-wing analyst Daniel Levy, one of the founders of J Street, is also a part of this think tank.
Fast-forward half a year, and working groups inside the EU bureaucracy are preparing yet another statement on the Middle East “peace process” for the EU’s foreign ministers.
And one of the drafts this time explicitly includes the language of differentiation.
According to one draft, “The EU will continue to unequivocally and explicitly make the distinction between Israel and all territories occupied by Israel in 1967, by ensuring inter alia the nonapplicability of all EU agreements with the State of Israel, in form and in implementation, to these territories.”
That, in a nutshell, lays the foundation for the policy of distinction that could then lead to operational steps like the ones suggested in the paper published a few months earlier. The draft set alarm bells ringing in Jerusalem.
The EU, however, is not the only one with “distinction” on its mind. This is also a term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been using with increasing frequency lately, but the differentiation he has in mind is between individual EU states, with which he stresses Israel has good relations, and the EU as an institution.
At a press conference last Thursday with the foreign media, Netanyahu was asked about the State of Israel’s relations with the EU.
“Let me make first a distinction between the EU and the European states, and I draw that distinction,” he said, beginning a well-practiced riff on the positive relations Israel has with so many European states, despite a “double standard” he argues is used by the EU as a whole when dealing with the Jewish state.
Tellingly, his first example of the positive relationships with EU states was Greece and Cyprus, mentioning the tripartite meeting he will hold this coming Thursday in Nicosia with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
That meeting is expected to focus on energy issues, as the gas finds over the last decade in the eastern Mediterranean have brought the three countries together in ways that were unthinkable 10 years ago.
“So our relationship with, and our cooperation with the European states, just about across the board, has been intensifying and growing, as it is with other countries in the world,” Netanyahu said.
He then added an exception: the multilateral organizations “like the UN, or like the UN Human Rights Council, or – unfortunately – like the EU.”
The reason for these exceptions, he said, is that “bureaucracies or set patterns” have entrenched themselves there.
In Netanyahu’s view of the world, there is a clear dichotomy: poor relations with multilateral organizations, good relations on a bilateral level with individual countries.
And the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council this week was a testing ground to see to what degree good bilateral ties could influence the decision of a multilateral organization.
ONCE it became clear that a draft resolution specifically using the language of “distinction” was on the verge of being adopted, Jerusalem went into action to thwart it. And thwarting it meant getting some of those states with which Netanyahu boasts of wanting good and strong mutually beneficial relations with Israel to actually take action. Foreign Affairs Council conclusions are passed only by unanimous consent, so it is enough to get a single country to strongly dissent, and things could change.
But countries, regardless of how friendly, don’t generally want to act alone, especially if they are acting against the mind-set of bureaucracy and some central and powerful countries in the EU pushing in the other direction, such as France and Sweden.
And here is where things turned interesting, and how it was possible to build a coalition based on other interests not related to Israel at all.
Among the countries that joined Greece and Cyprus in going to bat for Israel in the EU working groups to water down the text were the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria, with which Israel has strong ties, and Hungary, which has not distinguished itself as a champion for Israel within the EU institutions.
Poland as well, whose recent voting record on Israel in multilateral forums has not been as positive as it was in the past, also joined this coalition.
One of the reasons Hungary and Poland – as well as Romania and Bulgaria – were willing to join this coalition this time is their displeasure with the EU’s policy, led by Germany, on the refugee crisis. Challenging the EU on this issue was a way to throw their weight around, stick a pinkie in the EU’s eye and serve warning that if their opinions were not taken into consideration on the refugee issue, they could hit back elsewhere.
Well aware of the rifts inside the EU, Netanyahu personally called leaders of these countries over the weekend, and on Monday the conclusions from the EU Foreign Affairs Council – while definitely not music to Israel’s ears – did not include the differentiation clause.
Though the language used to slam the settlements was a bit tougher than it was last year, the path was not paved – by using the language of distinction and differentiation – for more immediate draconian EU measures against Israel relating to the settlements.
A bullet was dodged – at least this time. And it was dodged because, as Netanyahu points out, there is indeed a distinction on Israel between the EU and its member states.