EU official: Time not right to boost ties with Israel

Commissioner says Israel must commit to peace talks; Livni urges EU not to freeze planned upgrade.

EU foreign ministers 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
EU foreign ministers 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel must make clear its commitment to pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians before ties between Jerusalem and the European Union are upgraded, the EU's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. "We believe that good and trustful relations with Israel are essential in order to make our voice heard," Ferrero-Waldner said. "We do not believe, however, that the time is ripe to go beyond the current level of relations." Last year, the EU decided to upgrade ties with Israel after a flurry of diplomatic achievements by then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and European countries friendly to Israel, at the EU Parliament in Brussels. Following Operation Cast Lead, however, diplomatic bodies in a number of European countries called for a freeze on the upgrade, citing the pressure of domestic public opinion. Four European states have already said that if Israel did not agree to a two-state solution, they would oppose upgrading relations. That view seemed to edge closer to a consensus within the EU on Thursday, as reflected by Ferrero-Waldner's statements. "Too much remains unclear at this current point in time," the EU commissioner said. "And we expect indeed a clear commitment from the new government to pursue the negotiations with the Palestinians." The EU expects "a stop of all activities undermining our objective of a two-state solution," she added, citing the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, "which is continuing on a daily basis." "Israel knows what we have to offer, and we have shown our very good will and our commitment to reinforce our relations, but we think that the ball is now in the court of Israel," she added. In response to the EU commissioner's statements, opposition leader Tzipi Livni sent a letter on Thursday to the the heads of the EU, entreating that they refrain from freezing the upgrade in relations. "I urge you not to allow the freeze of upgrading relations," the letter read. "I am deeply committed to peace between Israel and its neighbors, as are most Israelis." Livni also asked that the EU not make its ties with Israel contingent on the peace process with the Palestinians, saying, "Ultimately straightening ties, and not weakening them, will serve the interests of Israel, the EU and the Middle East." Meanwhile, the Czech Republic's ambassador to Israel, Michael Zantovsky, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that while there were concerns among certain EU member states that Israel may be veering from its pursuit of a two-state solution, no concrete decision had been taken as to how those concerns might affect the scheduled upgrade in relations between the EU and Israel. "The EU decided on the upgrade of relations with Israel last year, and that the upgrade would take place within the context of the peace process and the advancement of a two-state solution," said the ambassador, whose country currently holds the revolving presidency of the EU. "I just came from the meeting between [Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu], in which Netanyahu explained that Israel is undertaking a policy review of its plans and will be ready to make those public around mid-May, possibly during his [scheduled] visit to Washington," he said. "Depending on how the priorities [of those plans] are phrased, they will constitute the basis for further development of our relationship. But I'm not aware of any [current] decision to freeze anything based on moves made by the Israeli government." Topolánek, he continued, "explained to [Netanyahu] both our interest in continuing this process [of upgraded relations with the EU] and the concerns of EU member states that the process continues in the direction of a two-state solution. "The EU as a whole has an interest in seeing a peace agreement develop between Israel and the Palestinians," Zantovsky said. "That said, there's no haves and musts there - Israel is a democratic, sovereign country, and we respect that. What we are saying is that the interest of the EU is peace, and that peace should come through an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.