Netanyahu working to get EU to freeze publication of new settlement guidelines

PM lobbies European Commission president to drop directive, saying it will hurt peace process and Israeli ties with EU.

Netanyahu walking tough 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu walking tough 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu phoned European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on Wednesday hoping to convince the EU not to formally publicize on Friday new guidelines on settlements. Israel believes the regulations would have negative ramifications on both the peace process and its ties with the EU.
Israeli officials said that Netanyahu attacked the new measures and repeated his position that there were more burning issues in the Middle East – such as the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program – that needed to be dealt with first. The officials said that the two men agreed to continue discussing the issue.
With the guidelines – drawn up by European Commission bureaucrats – due to be formally publicized in the EU’s journal on Friday, it was not immediately clear whether this would now be postponed as Netanyahu and Barroso continue to work on the matter.
The guidelines would significantly restrict Israeli institutions from taking part in various EU programs and being eligible for EU grants, prizes and financial instruments if they have activities beyond the Green Line.
Netanyahu also spoke with US Secretary of State John Kerry, currently in Amman trying to push forward Israeli-Palestinian talks, about the EU guidelines. The prime minister reiterated his position that this type of European support for Palestinian maximalist demands will make it much more difficult to start the negotiations.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who met EU envoy Andreas Reineke on Wednesday, made similar arguments, saying that it was important for the Europeans to let Israel and the Palestinians determine the border in negotiations, and that it was not for the EU to unilaterally do it for them. Livni added an EU decision to freeze the guidelines would contribute to restarting the talks.
Over the last two days, Netanyahu also spoke about the matter with French President Francois Hollande, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, and Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Those conversations, at least the ones with the Austrian and Maltese leaders, were believed to be as much about placing Hezbollah on the EU’s terror blacklist as they were about the settlement guidelines.
Malta is perceived as being the last remaining country to register opposition to calling Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization. Austria announced on Wednesday it was dropping its opposition. European officials held a meeting on the matter on Wednesday, and the EU’s 28 foreign ministers are expected to discuss the issue during a meeting on Monday.
Israel’s ambassadors in EU countries, meanwhile, were instructed to explain to their interlocutors the significance and ramifications of the guidelines, which are believed in Jerusalem to be understood by very few, outside of the EU bureaucrats who drafted them.
The ambassadors are to explain the practical implications of the guidelines, and how there are certain clauses that are impossible for Israel to live with, and which will severely complicate both Israeli-EU ties and the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
One senior Israeli diplomatic official quoted highly placed colleagues in some European capitals he contacted on Tuesday as saying, when the story first broke, that they did not know what was being discussed.
“We need to understand who is behind this,” the official said. “If it is a process set forth at the diplomatic level, or whether it was overeager bureaucrats who took a statement made after the EU foreign ministers meeting in December and took it way too far.”
The official said it was not clear to what extent EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who mentioned none of this when she was in Israel last month, was involved in the process. Netanyahu has not spoken to Ashton about this matter over the last two days.
Following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in December, they issued a statement that included the following: “The European Union expresses its commitment to ensure that – in line with international law – all agreements between the State of Israel and the European Union must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.”
The official said that senior diplomats in some European capitals said they were surprised that such a detailed document governing the EU’s interactions with institutions and companies operating beyond the Green Line had been developed from that statement.
It is important to delay publication of the guidelines, the Israeli official said, because once they are publicized in the official EU gazette, it will take a consensus of the 28 EU countries to rescind them, something that is highly improbable.
Netanyahu, according to the official, is trying to explain that the EU is acting like “an elephant in a china shop,” and that not only will this move make it more difficult to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, because they will ask why they should bother negotiating when the Europeans are giving them what they want, but it will also enhance voices in Israel against Kerry’s efforts.
While up until now, the Right has given Netanyahu the political space he needs to encourage Kerry’s efforts and enter into talks with the Palestinians, as a result of the EU guidelines – and because of the sense that nothing Israel can do will relieve EU pressure – there will be voices saying that there is no reason to give any concession to the Palestinians.
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who together with Livni met with Netanyahu in an urgent meeting Tuesday to discuss the new measures, have said in closed meetings that if this is implemented, Israel should shut the EU out of the diplomatic process and the projects it is funding for the Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, and Israel should also make no gestures to the PA to get them back to talks.
“This is an overeager bureaucratic process that can have far-reaching ramifications that Israel cannot agree to and which is liable to significantly hurt Israeli-EU cooperation in research and development, education, culture and scientific exchanges,” Elkin told The Jerusalem Post, adding that “it badly hurts the diplomatic process and Kerry’s efforts.”
Senior diplomatic officials, meanwhile, expressed wonderment that Israel’s Embassy to the EU in Brussels did not see this move coming a few months ago, which would have given Israel more time to try to deflect it.
While the work on the guidelines was done by EU bureaucrats discreetly, the official said that the Israeli mission on the ground in Brussels should have picked up the signs. Foreign Ministry officials, however, said it is difficult to pick up signs if the EU bureaucrats dealing with the matter were deliberately doing so in a shroud of secrecy.
Some 10 days ago, Israeli Ambassador to the EU David Waltzer was informed that something was being discussed concerning adding a territorial clause to EU-Israel agreements.
This was often discussed, and no one became unduly alarmed, the official said.
The actual guidelines themselves were sent to the Foreign Ministry over the weekend, and on Monday, Elkin received a legal opinion on what they meant. At that point, he brought it to the attention of Netanyahu, and called an urgent meeting in the ministry set for Wednesday to discuss how to deal with it.