Israel sees ties with EU as crucial

Jerusalem requests significant increase in cooperation with European Union agencies.

EU 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
EU 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel is increasingly "plugging into" EU institutions and, in turn, allowing European political and economic influence to play a greater part in its diplomatic and economic processes, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The thinking within the Foreign Ministry is that it is time to reassess the Jewish state's traditional line that Israel's survival rests on two pillars only: a strong IDF and an unbreakable alliance with America. What is becoming evident is the increasing understanding of the importance the European Union plays in world events and in the Middle East particularly, officials say. "Increasingly, Europe is involved in everything that touches us: trade, the Palestinians, Iran, UNIFIL in Lebanon. They are in the Quartet, and many other examples. Developing a strong relationship with Europe is becoming the third pillar safeguarding Israel's survival," a senior Israeli diplomatic source told the Post this week. Israeli officials cite a change in relations with Europe following the 9/11 attacks, which "opened European eyes to the threats emanating from this region. They realized they had vital interests in this region, which is essentially their backyard." Traditionally, Israel has relied much more on its relationship with the US on questions of security and diplomacy, and this has not changed. An Israeli prime minister has never visited Brussels on a formal diplomatic mission. "It's just never worked out," the diplomatic official said. This reliance on Washington is strategic, as evidenced by the growing signs, as first reported in the Post, that America, Israel and the Palestinians are formulating a plan to introduce NATO peacekeepers into the West Bank following an Israeli withdrawal, if and when a peace treaty is signed. Since NATO forces are already deployed in areas like Kosovo and Afghanistan, and with the bulk of US armed forces concentrated in Iraq, Europe would likely be asked to fill the ranks should the NATO-West Bank deployment materialize. Despite reports to the contrary, UNIFIL troops are continuing to monitor southern Lebanon and have no immediate plans to end their mission. The Spanish Embassy has rejected a report in the Post in which Israeli defense officials recently expressed concern over Spain's commitment to UNIFIL ahead of the Spanish elections - pointing to the precedent of the withdrawal of Spanish forces from Iraq following the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the change of government there. Nevertheless, there is a widespread sense within the Israeli diplomatic establishment that UNIFIL's strength and commitment would not withstand a serious challenge from Hizbullah. One area of security that has seen increased cooperation is the training of Palestinian Authority forces. Alongside US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton's military advisers, who are training PA security forces, 33 Canadian and European police advisers have recently started training their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank. Regarding Europe's diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, the source said European politicians, especially those in Germany, Austria and Italy, were having a hard time convincing their businessmen and industrialists to sever or downgrade their economic ties with Teheran. "Many in those countries are still doing business with Iran, as evidenced by the latest OMV deal. Despite this, we are seeing some successes," the source said, adding that lobbying European politicians to pressure their industrialists to sanction Iran was "Israel's daily work." France and Britain were leading the diplomatic campaign against Iran, the official added. OMV is a large Austrian oil company, partially state-owned. Part of Israel's strategy to strengthen relations with Europe is to de-link those ties from the vicissitudes of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In the past, Israeli-European ties fluctuated parallel to progress, or the lack thereof, on negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. "The Europeans are, in general, not pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, they are pro-peace process. Progress with the Palestinians meant better relations with Europe," the Israeli diplomatic source said. Jerusalem's new strategy is to enhance cooperation with Europe in a variety of fields and to demonstrate that Israel can help with some of the EU's many interests in the region. To that end, Israel has in the past few weeks sent a detailed plan to the European Union asking to enter into negotiations on cooperation in nine fields. The cooperation would entail "significant" Israeli inclusion into an array of EU institutions in fields such as finance, education, environment, youth development, law enforcement, security cooperation and scientific research collaboration. The plan comes on top of existing Israel-EU cooperation such as the Barcelona Process, the European Neighborhood Policy, the Galileo space program, and many instances of bilateral ties. The EU is studying the latest proposal and has promised to give Israel a preliminary answer by mid-March. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will meet with her European counterparts in June to try close a deal, the Post has learned. Israeli officials are upbeat about the prospects for successful reforms in Israel should the country gain access to cooperation with European agencies, especially in the financial and environmental sectors. "Important reform programs tied to increased global access are easier to sell than homegrown reforms, which are always mired in local political considerations," the source said. Another aspect of Jerusalem's strategy to strengthen ties with Europe is increasing contact with the continent's growing Muslim communities. "Europe is becoming more and more Muslim, and we have identified a need to reach out to these populations," the diplomatic official said.