EU envoy and Israel are parting as friends, with differences

The EU’s envoy to Israel, Andrew Standley, is leaving the country this week after a four-year stint. In a parting interview with ‘The Jerusalem Post’ he reflects on the country, EU-Israel ties and, of course, the settlement guidelines.

Andrew Standley 370 (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
Andrew Standley 370
(photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
It can’t be easy being the European Union’s ambassador to Israel. First there is the heavy historical baggage Jews have with Europe. Then there is the widespread Israeli perception that Europe will always – but always – side with the Palestinians for a wide variety of economic, political and sociological reasons. And, of course, there is the Israeli tendency to discount anything the EU says with a dismissive, “Do the Europeans really have the moral right to preach to us.”
If it is difficult to be the EU’s ambassador to Israel even in the best of times, in these times – following the publication of the EU’s settlement guidelines, which made operational in a very stark form Europe’s complete and utter opposition to any settlement anywhere at all beyond the 1967 lines – it is even more difficult as the country’s leaders rail against what is perceived as blatantly unfair European policies.
For instance, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently told German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle that these policies are frankly rendering peace-making with the Palestinians more difficult.
Yet Andrew Standley, the amiable EU envoy who will leave Israel on Thursday after a four-year stint which he said “coincided with a period of relative stagnation” in the EU-Israel relationship, shows no signs of great eagerness to get the heck out of the country where the body he represents is, well, not exactly the “flavor of the month.”
Standley will on September 9 become the EU’s envoy to Mexico.
Even those Israelis who seem to really dislike the EU – someone, say, like Avigdor Liberman – who find the EU’s obsession with the settlements overthe- top; who accuse it of employing gross double standards toward Israel and the Arab world; who cannot believe that it took the Europeans two decades to list half of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, will find it difficult not to be challenged by Standley.
For Standley defies easy black-orwhite characterizations. He likes Israel, he understands Israel, he has a warm spot in his heart for Israel. Yet, at the same time, he believes some of Israel’s polices – specifically its settlement policy – are wrong, illegal and have alienated much of Europe.
When Standley took up his post in Israel in 2008 he was returning to a country he had come to numerous times as a youth, he told The Jerusalem Post from his expansive office in the EU Embassy on the 15th floor of a Ramat Gan tower. Each summer from 1973- 1975, and then again in 1980, the Oxford-born Standley joined thousands of other Europeans and volunteered to work on a kibbutz.
That was a different epoch in Israel- European ties.
“Many, many young Europeans in the 1960s and 1970s looked at the kibbutz experience and Israel as a very exciting and interesting place,” he said. “The kibbutz was appealing to many because of its uniqueness in the world.” It also provided an opportunity to live in a different environment, “with great weather and usually a great group of people.”
Asked if he was attracted by Israel or the kibbutzim, Standley said that while it was “a combination of both,” what “lodged most in people’s mind was the kibbutz, because it was seen as this new social model.”
“People who were young and idealistic saw in the kibbutz an attempt to create a model of new social organization that was seen as very interesting,” he said. “Israel was also seen as a country in the making, a progressive country, a new model in a way.”
That was then, a period that now seems far away. Asked how Israel lost that appeal and attraction to young Europeans, Standley noted first and foremost that the kibbutz movement on its own has changed.
Further, he said, “as countries mature, maybe some of the earlier idealism which they radiate changes and – if it is not lost – evolves over time.
And that is reflected in the way people see the country from the outside.”
And, he added, “the continuous fact of the occupation.”
When Standley first came to Israel in May 1973, the country was just about to turn 25, and “the occupation was not as deeply imprinted in the minds of many Europeans as it is now 47 years later.”
Reminded that Israel did control the territories when he came in the ’70s and in 1980, the envoy replied that “the settlement program had hardly begun, and it was not an element that attracted so much attention.” Also, he pointed out, at that time “there was no discussion of a peace process, of a two-state solution.”
Standley did not point to any one event that changed the perception of Israel in Europe, but said it was largely an accumulation of forces, including the continuation of the settlements, the “eruption of intifadas,” and the television images emerging from the area.
Now, he acknowledged, there is stagnation in the EU-Israel relationship, because of the stagnation in the peace process. In 2008, soon after he arrived, the EU decided that any future upgrade of ties with Israel would be dependent on movement in the diplomatic process, and since the diplomatic process has moved nowhere, neither have EU-Israel ties.
Some in Israel would argue that the recently published settlement guidelines will actually move the ties backward.
Standley, ever the diplomat, demurred, saying that the guidelines were merely “a bump in the road.” The ambassador said he was surprised that the guidelines elicited so much anger and push-back from Jerusalem, since twice in 2012 the EU’s foreign ministers – “within the context of yet another restatement of our well know position of the illegality of settlements and that they represent an obstacle to the peace process” – made clear that EU funding should not be extended to Israeli entities beyond the Green Line.
The guidelines, he said, were designed to “operationalize” those statements in practical terms, and no one in Israel should have been surprised.
Besides, he said, Israel has territorial clauses built into agreements with many other partners, not only the EU. He cited, as an example, a territorial clause that exists in Israel’s membership agreement with the OECD.
The ambassador predictably deflected Israel’s claims that the guidelines stiffened the back of the Palestinians and would make the negotiations even more difficult, countering that there was “anecdotal evidence” to suggest that the publication of the guidelines actually helped bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the table.
Well versed in Israel’s counterarguments, he dismissed claims that there was a double standard at play here, and that similar EU sanctions were not taken against other areas in conflict, such as Western Sahara, Kashmir and Cyprus. He noted that the cases are not similar, and then explained in a couple of instances where the dissimilarities lie.
The publication of the guidelines has cast doubt on whether Israel will participate in the massive EU R&D project called Horizon 2020, with Israel saying that it would not be able to participate under the current terms of the guidelines. Asked whether Israel’s participation mattered to Europe, Standley praised the quality and level of Israeli science and research and said that if Israel decided not to participate in the program “Horizon 2020 would be the lesser for it.”
But, he made clear, “in numerical terms Israel’s participation is obviously a very small part of the picture,” and that Israel will be a “net recipient of financial assistance” under the program. Although the final figures have not yet been determined, Horizon 2020 is likely to be close to an 80 billion euro program, with Israel – if it eventually decides to join – set to contribute some 600 million euros.
“Horizon 2020 will go ahead with or without Israel,” he said. “It is one of the fundamental programs that we have to develop a knowledgebased, technology-based economy in the EU.”
One thing the settlement guidelines brouhaha has done, he said, is put to rest what he said was one of the main misconceptions in Israel regarding the EU: that in this region it is a “payer, not a player,” an actor whose job was to write checks to the Palestinians, but not do much more than that.
“If you want to see the silver lining in the [settlement guidelines] cloud, it is that it has brought into the forefront and attention of the wider Israeli public just how important Israel’s cooperation with Europe is. People have been focusing very much on the scientific and technological cooperation – how important that is to Israel. And that is not the characteristic of someone who is a payer, not a player.”
Add into the mix that the EU is Israel’s principal trading partner, and Standley said that demonstrated the degree to which the EU “is not some kind of marginal checksigning entity that somehow pays for Palestinians to develop their institutions for statehood. It also contributes in a mutually beneficial way to the fundamental development of Israel.”
The “payer not player” idea is just one of a number of misconceptions Standley believes Israelis harbor toward the EU. Another is that the EU only pressures one side – Israel – in the conflict.
“We have a close relationship with the PA, we have been providing a lot of assistance in state building, in preparation for statehood, but at the same time there is a lot political engagement in the direction of ensuring that the action of the Palestinian leadership and the PA goes in the direction of allowing talks to start again.”
Asked to provide an example of pressure brought on the Palestinians that comes close to the settlement guideline prod used against Israel, Standley argued that the modes and degrees of pressure cannot be compared, since the scope and depth of the EU’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians are so different.
“Look at the completely different nature of agreement we have between the EU and the PLO and PA on the one hand, and Israel on the other,” he said. “I don’t know how much trade we have with the Palestinian economy, but it is trivial compared to the 40b.-50b. euro exchange we have with Israel. It is a very asymmetrical situation, so you can’t expect the actions and responses to be equivalent, given the asymmetry that exists in the relations.”
The ambassador acknowledged that just as there were Israeli misconceptions of EU, Europe also has some basic misconceptions about Israel.
One has to do with the Israel role reversal that has taken part inside Europe, with Israel, once seen as David, now perceived as the Goliath against a Palestinian David.
“There is this view of Israel as this very strong, secure place with one of the world’s most effective military establishments. So there is this perception that Israel is not really under any threat,” he said. “You don’t need to spend a lot of time in Israel to realize – quite reasonably – that the average Israeli feels insecure.”
Standley said that Europeans do not sufficiently understand the degree to which Israelis genuinely feel that they are “living on the brink,” and that there are “huge forces still committed to their elimination, to pushing them into the sea.”
He said Europeans do not grasp the paradox of an Israel that is mighty in military power on one hand, but whose average citizens live with “understandable fear for their security.”
He also said that there is a misconception among Europeans of Israeli attitudes toward the peace process.
“I continue to believe that a great majority of Israelis would welcome a settlement of the conflict, would welcome – under certain provisions – the existence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I think maybe in Europe the prevalent image is of Israel, or an Israeli people, that has no interest in the peace process.”
That European misperception, he said, comes from polls showing that Israelis – when ranking their daily concern – place the peace process “lower than where most Europeans imagine it should be.” This is perceived, he said, as a lack of interest.
If Israel has mixed feelings toward Europe – a combination of understanding the importance of EU to the country’s development with a sense that Israel can and will not get a fair hearing in Europe for reasons that range from anti-Semitism to European guilt over its own historic colonialism, to a rising Muslim population – Europe has complex feelings toward Israel as well.
“I think that on the whole attitudes toward Israel are this mixture of admiration for its achievements, recognition of what a special country it is in terms of what it has been able to accomplish, how far it has gone in just 65 years, together with these images of an occupation that is not only going on too long, but is affecting people on a daily basis in ways that it is very difficult for Europeans to understand,” he said.
Europeans, at least those who have never been here, are also not aware of the country’s vibrancy and diversity, he maintained.
“People from Europe who come to Israel for the first time have no idea what it is like,” he said. “They think it is a place where you are not safe. I think they are absolutely shocked in a positive way when they arrive in Tel Aviv and see this incredibly bustling, vibrant, open place, where you can walk nearly the entire city with a sense of near absolute security, much more than in most European capitals or big cities. That comes as a real surprise.”
What is also a real “eye opener,” he said, was the diversity.
“This is a country where you have a really strong presence of extreme conservative elements, and also of the extreme Left. You have Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the world with great levels of tolerance and acceptance.
This is a very complex society shot into a very, very small space.”
Furthermore, he said – one foot out the door on the way to Mexico – “it is a country with many people who, for often tragic reasons, have incredible personal family histories to tell, histories that are unimaginable to many people in Europe. And when you have the privilege and honor to talk to some people, to get their story, it is absolutely incredible, and really makes you feel humble that out of that has arisen a country that is as dynamic and diverse as it is, and which has remained a democracy, despite all the challenges it has faced over its 65 years.” •