By Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA)
Israel makes a clear distinction between the EU itself and its member states. ‘’Our relationship and cooperation with the European states has been intensifying and growing as it is with other countries in the world,’’ said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he addressed the foreign press last week in Jerusalem.
The problem, he said, is with multinational organisations, like the UN ‘’or unfortunately like the EU,’’ Netanyahu declared, criticising the EU bureaucracy for its decision in November to label Israeli products from the West Bank and the Golan Heights entering the EU market.
The distinction between the EU and its member states when it comes to relations with Israel was clear again Monday when the 28 EU Foreign Ministers held a lengthy discussion on a proposed text on the Middle East Peace Process that contained harsh wording on Israel’s settlement policy.
The topic was not on the initial agenda of the meeting which only mentioned ‘’Syria and recent developments in the region’’ as well as Iraq and Ukraine.
But Ireland, Malta and foremost Sweden, whose relations with Israel are at the lowest level ever, pushed for a discussion on a draft text discussed last week at a lower diplomatic level by the 28 member states.
The differences between the member states was so important that it took several hours of discussion Monday afternoon before EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini could announce to reporters an agreement around what she termed as ‘’a good text and a common basis four our common position and our engagement in the region.’’
A number of countries, including Greece, Hungary, Romania an Poland, considering the text too harsh and critical twoards Israel pushed hard to have it watered down, even forcing Foreign Ministers to unexpectedly debate the text late in the afternoon.
At one point, diplomats told us, the discussion was so intense that the possibility arouse to have the text being taken off the meeting’s agenda. Some member states argued that the EU ‘’needed to avoid adding fuel to the fire in its already very tense relations with Israel.’’
The text of the EU Council conclusions on the Middle East Peace Process was only published and distributed to the press after Mogherini’s press conference.
An earlier draft of the text stated that ‘’the EU will continue to unequivocally and explicitly make the distinction between Israel and all territories occupied by Israel in 1967 by ensuring the non-applicability of all EU agreements with the State of Israel, in form and in implementation, to those territories.’’
The text adopted late Monday was changed to : ‘’The EU and its Member States are committed to ensure continued, full and effective implementation of existing EU legislation and bilateral arrangements applicable to settlements products. The EU expresses its commitment to ensure that – in line with international law- all agreements between the State of Israel and the EU must unequivocally and explicity indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. This does not constitute a boycott of Israel which the EU strongly opposes.’’
‘’The EU will continue to closely monitor developments on the ground and their broader implications and will consider further action in order to protect the viability of the two-state solution, which is constantly eroded by new facts on the ground,’’ the text said.
The problem is that several countries, including Greece, Hungary and the Czech Republic, refuse to abide by the EU labeling guidelines, an opposition which underlines again the differentiation between the EU’s policy towards Israel and the relations of individual member states with Jerusalem.
These countries argue that of Europe wants to play a bigger role in the Middle East peace process, the EU should issue a text that needs to be well balanced and not only harsh with one of the two parties.
There is a natural tendency in the EU establishment to single out Israel, the sole real democracy in the region, and treat it in ways that other countries are not being treated.
Israel’s foreign ministry responded to the EU’s statement to apply its agreements with Israel solely to areas inside the pre-67 Green Line, by stating: “Following the diplomatic and political efforts of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the EU softened its resolution.”
“Nonetheless, the EU continues to apply double standards to Israel, while ignoring the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility for the frozen political process and for the incitement that is feeding the wave of Palestinian terror.”
“Out of 200 territorial conflicts in the world, the EU chose to discriminate only against Israel. This approach prevents the union from being a fair player in settling the conflict,” the Foreign Ministry said, reiterating a position already taken after the EU announced its decision to label settlement products, prompting Jerusalem to suspend its diplomatic dialogue with the EU as a protest measure, ‘’but not with individual member states.’’
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely accused the EU of being one-sided in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said the statement would bring about “the opposite effect that they aimed to achieve.”
The leader of Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, said Monday’s EU conclusions continued a problematic line of attempts to intervene in Israel’s sovereign affairs. ‘’The statement attempts to determine future borders and to create a reality on the ground,’’ Lapid said, a few days after meeting Federica Mogherini in Brussels to urge her to condemn boycotts of Israel.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog went even further by saying that the EU statement on the settlements was tantamount the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. He said the EU was mistaken in not differentiating between isolated settlements and settlement blocs.
In the conclusions, the EU also expressed deep concern that the continuing cycle of violence has led to a serious loss of human life in Israel and the Palestinian territory in recent months.’’
Without any specific reference to the current wave of daily attacks by Palestinians against Israelis, which has so far left 28 people dead, including a mother of six stabbed to death in her home on Sunday, the EU condemned the terror attacks and violence ‘’from all sides and in any cir cumstances, including the death of children.’’
Ahead of the Brussels meeting, Netanyahu ordered that EU Foreign Ministers and Mogherini be sent material on continued Palestinian incitement to violence.
In the text, the EU urged all parties to refrain from any action ‘’that would worsen the situation by way of incitement or povocation’’ and called on the parties ‘’to condemn attacks when they occur and adhere strictly to the principles of necessity and proportionality in the use of force.’’
It called ‘’on both sides to jointly and resolutely fight incitement and hate speech.,’adding that only the reestabishment of a political horizon and the resumption or dialogue can stop the violence.’’
While until now the EU approach was to call for the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks, the new statement calls for enhanced multilateral approach to the peace process.
The text mentions the possible establishment of an International Support Group and a further international conference as ways to contribute to this approach. ‘’ The EU recalls its willingness to engage further with regional partners on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative which provides key elements for the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the opportunity for building a regional security framework,’’ the text added.
Monday’s meeting underlined again differences of approach within the EU on relations with Israel and on the peace process with the Palestinians.
In order to play the role of an honest broker between the parties in peacemaking efforts, the EU needs foremost to build confidence measures with both sides, including Israel.
The EU should follow the example of several of its member states.