Settlements are a problem in the EU-Israel relationship

Whenever news of construction is announced, any goodwill accumulated by Israel evaporates faster than a drop of rain in the Negev.

A VIEW of Wadi Fukin is seen from the Jewish community of Beitar Illit (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VIEW of Wadi Fukin is seen from the Jewish community of Beitar Illit
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There’s no point trying to dress it up: the issue of settlements is a boil on the EU-Israel relationship that needs to be lanced.
As a pro-Israel advocacy group based in Brussels, and dealing specifically with the EU institutions, we know what we are talking about, because we made it our mission to know our audience.
We do our level best to talk up Israeli innovation, from agriculture and medical advances to high-tech and culture. And most of the time we have a receptive audience. We largely find that people are eager to engage with Israel and hear about something other than the conflict. Even after a difficult summer with Operation Protective Edge, we briefed people, kept them up to speed and generated a solid core of support in far from ideal circumstances.
But whenever news of the construction of settlements is announced, any goodwill accumulated by Israel evaporates faster than a drop of rain in the Negev. It is so incredibly frustrating for us, and we believe for most other pro-Israel groups out there too.
We already know that the Americans were humiliated after peace talks to discover construction in east Jerusalem had begun.
The language coming out of the EU is getting tougher too. Just yesterday the foreign affairs ministers met in Luxembourg. As you can imagine, Ebola and Islamic State (IS) dominated proceedings. But we can’t be complacent. In the weeks ahead we anticipate some tough language and the threat of sanctions coming to the fore.
Already last week we heard of plans to limit the movement of some settlers by refusing them entry to the EU.
Our source of deep frustration is that nobody at a high level is willing to engage with the EU on the issue. At European Friends of Israel we are not partisan. We are neither for nor against settlements. Of course we all have our own opinions on it, but our job is to bring the EU and Israel closer together.
That’s why for us the fact that the Israeli government keeps trying to brush the issue under the carpet makes no sense.
We know from our discussions with MEPs, staffers and civil servants that there’s simply no room under there anymore. The bulge is just too big and politically it is starting to smell really bad.
Many in the EU wrongly believe that Israel and Israelis as a whole support settlement construction.
Of course we know things are never that simple.
In the hotbed of Israeli politics, where fragile coalitions exist, the issue of settlements is a live and pressing issue, just as it is in the rest of Israeli society. The Left are largely opposed, the Right in favor, and in the middle, well, that is the real point of tension. As if to prove our point, last week we saw a threat to the very existence of the current government from Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel.
But nobody outside Israel’s borders knows about it. All the EU sees is the current status quo of construction, without any prior consultation – much less dialogue. To repeat the point, this approach had a very short shelf life and, trust us, it is well past its sell-by date.
We badly need some understanding from the Israeli government on this. We need to see a proper engagement, at ministerial level, with the decision makers here in Brussels.
A good place to start would be to tackle the simple narrative that we talked about earlier head on: That Israel and Israelis support construction, no matter what.
Why not frame a discussion by pointing out that there is a debate at the heart of Israel, that it is so fractious that it can threaten the coalition? Point out that Israeli society is crunching this tough issue and is as divided as the Knesset is on it. Most importantly, the government should be saying that this ongoing internal debate is proof of a healthy democracy. Not something one can say about a majority of countries in the Middle East neighborhood.
The bottom line is that we need the EU to understand Israeli points of tension. We need to show them that we are not ignoring them but that this debate is taking place and that the EU’s absolutist position is not a solution.
And you do that by talking, explaining and being here in Brussels. Not by repeatedly doing whatever you like, whenever you like. If you go down that road then why not just throw salt in EU opinion makers’ eyes? It would have a similar effect.
If ministers started engaging and explaining, then EFI and the many others who support us and care about Israel won’t have to use explicit language any more when our goodwill generating projects are scuppered by more unilateral construction.
The author has been the executive director of the European Friends of Israel since 2012. Prior to this he held various positions in the European Parliament, the Knesset and the private sector.