Delegitimizing Europe?

‘ALTHOUGH WE share the objective of achieving a two-state solution, our positions on how to achieve that have differed on a number of points,’ writes the EU ambassador-designate to Israel.

Caravans in Psagot neighborhood 390 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Caravans in Psagot neighborhood 390
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Since I arrived in Israel a couple of months ago I have been deeply impressed by the vitality of your democracy, the dynamism of your people, your incredible achievements made in such a relatively short history.
But I have also been struck by some rather somber perceptions of EU-Israel relations both in the media and in the political arena. I have heard allegations that Europe does not care about Israel’s security; that it is obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and criticizing settlement expansion and that fundamentally Europe is becoming increasingly less relevant for Israel.
It is time to place our relations in their proper perspective and to set the record straight on a few key points.
Yes, we do have areas in which we disagree – and I will not evade them. And in Europe not all the news is good. Last week’s worrying report by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, was an important reminder of the continuing need for Europe to be vigilant in fighting against anti-Semitism in all its forms.
Yet overwhelmingly, what unites the European Union and Israel is far stronger than what might sometimes divide us. Israel and the EU share a strong and dynamic relationship based on a long – and at times tragic – common history. We have deeply shared values, including a commitment to democracy, respect for human rights and market economic principles as well as five decades marked by increasing and deepened cooperation in a wide variety of fields.
The considerable mutual benefits flowing from this relationship have become so intertwined in our daily lives that we almost take them for granted. But it is important to recall a few of the ways in which we interact. Visa-free travel allows for extensive human contacts and will become even more affordable next spring where the recently concluded EU-Israel “Open Skies” agreement takes effect.
Virtually all Israeli exports enjoy duty free access to the EU’s internal market resulting in 30 billion euro in mutual trade per year – more than Israel trades with anyone else in the world. The recent successful visit by vice-president of the European Commission responsible for industry, Antonio Tajani, at the head of a massive European trade delegation was evidence that the EU is committed to expanding already strong commercial ties with Israel’s dynamic and innovative economy.
CONVERSELY , BEING an export-led economy, Israel has much to gain from further access to a market of 500 million consumers. Ties like these create a real win-win situation for both Israel and Europe.
Over the years, Israel has joined numerous EU programs.
Since the mid -1990s, Israel has been the only non-European country to be fully associated to successive EU R&D programs – something both Israel and Europe have benefitted tremendously from. It is therefore our sincere hope that Israel will also participate in our new 80 billion euro science and technology program – Horizon 2020 – to be launched in January.
In short, the EU has developed its relations with Israel more than any other non-European country in the world: hardly an indication of European hostility, nor of Europe being “irrelevant” to Israel.
The one area where we don’t always see eye-to-eye is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although we share the objective of achieving a two-state solution, our positions on how to achieve that have differed on a number of points.
As I mentioned before I have the impression that in the eyes of many Israelis, the EU’s focus on the importance of a permanent settlement to the conflict is regarded as something of a nuisance. Why, goes the argument, is the EU “obsessed” with solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when it has proven so difficult and when there are so many more urgent problems to be addressed elsewhere in the region? Well, one important reason why we for long – longer than most others – have been a strong supporter of the two-state solution is because Israel is an ally and we care about its security. And we sincerely believe that the vision of the State of Israel living in peace behind secure and recognized borders side by side with a democratic, viable and contiguous Palestinian state is the best possible guarantor of Israel’s security.
Given the backing of the Arab Peace Initiative this also applies to the broader regional context. A resolution to the conflict would certainly make it easier for Israel to make common cause with Arab neighbors in confronting some of the real challenges in the region: not only on security issues but also on cooperation ranging from environmental challenges to illegal migration and trafficking.
If safeguarding Israel’s security and improving its chances of integration in the region are among the positive reasons for EU engagement in the MEPP, the negative effects of the status quo on both parties are no less compelling a reason for European engagement.
When it comes to Israel, tough questions are being asked, both here and in Europe. Can Israel achieve its aspiration to flourish as a Jewish and democratic state without a resolution to the conflict? What price will it pay in terms of its international reputation as long as it maintains a military occupation? The European Union resists all calls for boycotts of Israel but does Israel understand that the most effective response to campaigns of deligitimization is to make sincere efforts to achieve a two-state solution? A two-state solution is also in our – the EU’s – own strategic interest. We believe that closing this key fault line would bring greater stability to a volatile region situated on Europe’s doorstep. And yes, we want to see the Palestinian state-building project, in which we have invested so heavily for 20 years, finally come to fruition: our support for the reforms and the development of functioning institutions or for a professional Palestinian police force – to name but two contributions.
For all these reasons and more, the EU strongly supports the current US-backed direct peace negotiations and applauds the political courage and statesmanship shown by both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
SOME CLAIM that regional security challenges make it too risky a moment to try to end the conflict at this time. We understand that there is no magic wand that will make all the problems of the region disappear. And we are fully conscious of the painful sacrifices that need to be made on both sides. But in our view, the risks of inaction, for both Israelis and Palestinians, make it too risky not to try.
With this in mind, we have always considered it our duty to speak out to our Israeli and Palestinian friends when we felt that actions were neither in your own best interest nor in that of resolving the conflict. The European Union has consistently condemned acts of terror and demanded that the Palestinians immediately take action to rein it in. We have listed Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and others as terrorist organizations.
But, like your prime minister, we recognize President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner. And we recognize his difficulty in persuading ordinary Palestinians to support negotiations when they see Israeli settlements expanding year after year. So, yes, we have opposed and will continue to oppose Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
Not only because settlement building is in contravention of international law but because it physically complicates the implementation of a two-state solution, and undermines trust that Israel is negotiating in good faith.
Moreover, as the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority we cannot remain oblivious to the costs of the occupation – costs that the EU needs to cover in the form of additional development and humanitarian aid. Settlements, and the security measures accompanying them, lay claim to 60 percent of the West Bank. According to the World Bank, easing restrictions on Palestinian activity in just 10% of that area could add billions in revenue to the PA – more than Europe could ever afford to donate.
So, both for legal and practical reasons the EU has always been critical of settlement building. Consequently, it should not have come as a surprise when the European Commission, in July, published the so-called EU Guidelines which deny public funding from the EU budget to Israeli entities that are established or wish to carry out projects beyond the 1967 lines.
In practice, the funding guidelines merely codify a longstanding EU policy: to avoid using European tax payers’ money to fund activities in settlements.
As a result, their effect on the EU funding to Israeli institutions, companies and organizations will be minimal. And, despite misleading reports to the contrary, the Guidelines do not apply to individuals, to national public authorities or to banks as conduits for loans.
Nor is it true that the Guidelines represent an attempt to pre-judge Israel’s future borders. These will be decided through negotiations and, in the EU’s view, could include mutually agreed land swaps. Once agreed borders are established, the EU’s funding Guidelines will become redundant.
Discussions between the EU and Israel on outstanding issues regarding the implementation of the guidelines are currently being held in a constructive atmosphere. From the very outset, the EU stated that it was prepared to discuss the precise modalities of implementation of the Guidelines while stressing that their content should be respected.
In this regard I would like to stress that the guidelines were not the initiative of over-zealous “Brussels” bureaucrats: both EU foreign ministers and the European Parliament were crystal clear on the need for the European Commission to be explicit about the territorial scope of EU funding.
As for criticism of too much focus on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, I would like to point out that the EU is not exactly sitting idle when it comes to developments in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, all of which have huge security implications for Israel.
Tough EU sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard and were essential in bringing Iran back to the table. The EU is leading negotiations with Iran on behalf of the E3+3. It still remains for the Iranian regime to reassure the international community that its program is entirely peaceful. In Syria, the EU is actively involved in international efforts to end the violence, eliminate chemical weapons and head towards a peaceful and democratic transition.
The EU has so far allocated 400 million euro to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis. Regarding Lebanon, earlier this year the EU listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
On Egypt, the High Representative Lady Ashton is spearheading EU efforts to achieve a level of internal reconciliation that would allow the country to function and stabilize its free-falling economy.
In the midst of a turbulent region, the EU’s relations with Israel remain strong.
A permanent resolution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians would lead us to even higher levels: closer political cooperation with deeper integration for Israel in the EU’s internal market and in EU’s programs and agencies.The author is the EU ambassador-designate to Israel.