'Israeli frustration with EU's policies on rise'

Official says “no positive agenda between Israel and Brussels, only negative”; cites pushing of labels for settlement products.

EU building 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)
EU building 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)
Even as President Shimon Peres is in Europe holding talks with top-tier EU officials trying to enhance Israel’s position on the continent, diplomatic officials in Jerusalem are increasingly frustrated by what they see as Brussels’ pro-Palestinian tilt.
“There is a real dissonance between us and Brussels,” one senior official told The Jerusalem Post.
For instance, the official said, while the EU talks continually about labeling products from the settlements, or issues statements about Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails, or files demarches over all construction beyond the Green Line, it is unable to call Hezbollah a terrorist organization and was slow and mealy-mouthed in condemning Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity.
“When it comes to Israel they are very vocal,” the official said.
“When it comes to the Palestinians, they are very timid.”
The official was critical of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, saying that on certain issues, such as pushing EU states to label products from the settlements, she is “running forward.” But on other issues, such as getting the EU to place Hezbollah on the EU’s terror list, Ashton says her mandate is only to reflect EU policy – not lead it – and that there is no consensus on this matter, the official said.
For instance, on February 22 Ashton sent a letter to all EU foreign ministers urging them to “draw the attention” of their colleagues from other ministries to the “effective enforcement” of labeling products from beyond the 1967 lines, the official said.
Earlier this week, the Dutch apparently took her advice seriously and issued a recommendation to retailers to effectively label products from beyond the Green Line. This practice is similar to one adopted by Britain.
What makes the Dutch move significant is that the Netherlands is considered one of Israel’s strongest friends inside the EU, though there is some concern in Jerusalem that a recent change in government there will alter the Dutch tone a bit.
The official said that Israel’s concern with moves such as labeling is not that they will necessarily have a tremendous economic impact – he said Israel’s trade with Britain actually increased since London recommended labeling settlement products – but that it could lead to other economic sanctions, such as calls for divestment from pension funds that invest in Israeli firms with business interests beyond the Green Line.
Brussels’ one-sided tilt, the official said, was reflected last week when the annual report of EU consuls-general in Jerusalem and Ramallah – a report that year after year slams Israeli polices – was leaked to the press.
That report, currently under discussion in Brussels, called for EU states to prevent “financial transactions, including foreign direct investment from within the EU, in support of settlement activities, infrastructure and services.”
According to the Israeli official, “Every year they put out a report that is critical of Israel, even though their mandate is to strengthen ties with the PA. They never issue a report on problems inside the PA – the misuse of funds, human rights abuses there. Only on Israel.”
Further, the official added, the reports are written without any Israeli input.” The net result, he said, was that there is “no positive agenda between Israel and Brussels, only negative. There are only sticks, no carrots.”
If the EU wanted to be taken seriously as an actor here, the official said, it should review this “negative” policy.
But Andreas Reinicke, the EU’s special representative for the Middle East Process, took issue with the “all sticks, no carrots” characterization of the relationship, saying in an interview with the Post that the positive aspects of the EU-Israel relationship are often overlooked.
“The positive elements [of the relationship] are always forgotten,” he said, referring to over 1,000 EU-Israel research and development projects, scientific cooperation, and the Israel-EU Association agreement that opened European markets to Israeli products.
Furthermore, Reinicke said, the EU contributes to Israel’s security, through UNIFIL, the Iran talks, UNRWA, and by the training of the Palestinian police force. And that is to say nothing of bilateral military cooperation between Israel and various EU states.
“Sometimes people don’t want to see this, only the other side,” he said.
Explaining Europe’s intense interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue – British Foreign Secretary William Hague described it last week as the most urgent foreign policy priority on the world’s agenda – Reinicke said the EU believed that the settlement of this conflict was not only a fundamental interest of the two sides, but also, because of its physical proximity to Europe, of the EU. He also said that EU continued to believe that a comprehensive agreement was possible.
Reminded of the argument often voiced by Israeli government officials – that with the region in tumult, it might be better to let the dust settle before moving full-speed ahead on the Palestinian track – Reinicke responded, “In the Middle East there is always dust. We don’t know what will happen, and we might see a picture emerge that is to Israel’s disadvantage. We could argue that while there is dust, let’s try to explore things.”
One thing worth exploring, the envoy recommended, was the shifting alliances and coalitions in the region as a result of the turmoil, and the possibility that some Arab countries might be now thinking “in new categories.”
“As long as the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not resolved, those countries will not be able to move in this direction,” he said.
Reinicke said that while it was clear there was a changing strategic environment in the changing region, and that there were significant risks, there were also opportunities. “And we think that we should look at those opportunities.”
Perhaps reflecting what European statesman whispered into US Secretary of State John Kerry’s ear during his recent visit to Europe, Reinicke said “one thing that has not been examined as it should have been is the Arab peace initiative offered 10 years ago.”
Reinicke said the Europeans were not standing at the ready with a peace plan to offer on their own, but rather wanted to assist the US in moving the diplomatic process forward.
“There is no EU plan,” he said “The plan is to support the Americans and be ready to be helpful. We hope for movement, and must be careful not to lose the two-state option. In order not to lose it, we have to move, and we don’t believe there is much time left.”
Reinicke explained the EU’s harsh criticism of all settlement activity as due to the feeling that it was fast rendering a twostate solution unobtainable.
Asked if he genuinely thought building in the large settlement blocks like Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion would preclude a Palestinian state, Reinicke responded that the European position was that the final accord should be based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, and that these swaps “have to be agreed upon by both sides.”
Reinicke deflected criticism of the report from the EU representatives in east Jerusalem, saying that while it was inappropriate that it was leaked, it was wrong to think the EU officials only criticize Israel in their reports. He said he could not answer why only the critical reports of Israel were the ones leaked to the press. This particular report, as the Post reported last week, was leaked by Breaking the Silence, a hard-left Israeli NGO.
Reinicke was noncommittal regarding the placing of Hezbollah on the EU terror list, saying only that there were “different views” on the matter inside the EU, and that the discussion was ongoing.
Regarding Erdogan’s statement, Reinicke was the first EU official to condemn it, saying it was “not helpful” and “unacceptable.”