Israel, EU in secret talks to end diplomatic crisis

Talks aimed at reaching understandings that would restart talks on Palestinian issue

Representatives of Israel and the European Union last week began low-key talks to resolve the current diplomatic crisis between the two players over the EU’s decision to label products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Israeli Haaretz daily reported.

Israeli officials told Haaretz that officials are currently working toward reaching agreements that would bring the relationship back on track.

According to the report, Helga Schmid, the EU’s Deputy Secretary General for the External Action Service, arrived in Israel last week.

During the secret visit, Schmid met with Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold, as well as representatives of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and officials from other ministries.

According to an unnamed official, Israel conveyed to Schmid that a condition for renewing dialogue with the EU regarding the Palestinian issue was that the EU take on a more respectful and balanced approach towards Israel.

“We told them that the decisions of the EU’scouncil of foreign ministers and the decision on the labeling of [settlement] products were unilateral and in fact adopted the Palestinian narrative. That’s no way to conduct a respectful dialogue,” the official told Haaretz.

Following the EU’s decision to release guidelines for labeling products from the settlements in supermarket chains throughout the continent, Israel announced that it was suspending some of the dialogue meetings with the EU, mainly regarding Palestinian projects and EU projects in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank.

The EU has insisted it was only clarifying existing rules on the place of origin for goods that will go on sale in the 28-nation bloc, adding that it had nothing to do with a boycott, which it says it does not support.

“For the past two weeks talks have been underway toward resolution with the EU,” an official in Jerusalem said.

The official added: “Israel’s ambassador to the EU institutions in Brussels, David Walzer, held talks on the matter and Helga Schmid visited here. The goal of the talks was to try to reach understandings that would restart talks on the Palestinian issue.”

The official told Haaretz the details were still not final, adding: “The EU is very unhappy that we froze everything having to do with the peace process vis a vis them. They understand that they have to give us something, in a statement, action or a more positive approach.”

This article was post on i24news on the 10th of February 2016

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Our MEP of The Month – Mr Martin Schulz – European Parliament President

Not necessarily the most obvious choice at first glance, But Mr Schultz has been solid and unwavering in his support for the State of Israel recently. Mr Schulz expressed his opposition to the labeling of settlements products, saying that such a move mainly hurts the Palestinians ‘’who make an honest living in working in factories there.’’ He made the remarks during a meeting with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in Berlin this month.

This is no mean feat given that the house he represents supports the guidelines by a significant majority. In fact, it was European Parliament pressure that saw the EEAS publish the new guidelines for the 28 member states to label products made in West Bank settlements in the first place. So for this, Mr Schulz, who clearly gets the situation on the ground, is January’s MEP of the month. Mazal Tov Mr President!

 

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Safeguarding the Peace Process Can the EU Be an “Honest Broker”?

After a difficult end to 2015 in the EU-Israel relationship due to the labelling guidelines, EIPA kicked off 2016 with a hugely successful standing room only event in the European Parliament entitled “Safeguarding the Peace Process: can the EU be an honest broker?”

Hosted by European Parliament Vice-President Pascu and Lars Adaktusson MEP, the cross party event heard from distinguished Israeli and EU speakers on the subject of Palestinian incitement, conditioning EU aid on a rejection of Incitement to violence and lastly on the EU’s role in the Peace Process. 


How one phrase divided the EU and Israel

The decision to label settlement goods causes friction within the bloc and strains ties with a staunch ally.

Israel’s U.S. ambassador sent gift boxes for the 2015 holiday season containing wine, olive oil, body cream, and halva — and a defiant note calling out the European Union.

The products came from what the international community considers to be occupied territories, and Ambassador Ron Dermer was determined to make a blunt point about the EU’s recent move to instruct member countries on how to label goods produced in areas outside Israel’s 1967 borders.

“The Jewish state is singled out and held to a different standard than other countries,” Dermer wrote. “Of the over 200 unresolved territorial disputes around the world, Europe decided that only these Jewish-made products deserved to be labeled.”

“In response to this effort to cast a beacon of freedom, tolerance and decency as a pariah state, I have decided this holiday season to send you products that were made in Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights,” he added.

Dermer’s reaction reflected the anger that many in Israel felt after the EU announced that the wording such as “product of West Bank (Israeli settlement)” should be displayed on cosmetics and food products, similar to the guidelines already in place inBelgium, the U.K  and Denmark.

An Israeli settler prepares olive oil containers at the Achia Olive press factory in the Jewish settlement of Shilo in the occupied West Bank on November 12, 2015. The European Union announced that goods from settlements -- Jewish communities built in areas occupied by force in 1967 -- must be specifically labelled, infuriating Israel. The EU ruling affects products imported from settlements in the occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and Golan Heights, all taken by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

More than one month after the guidelines were issued, the fallout continues. The decision has dogged European officials, caused friction within the European Union and strained the bloc’s ties with Israel.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini faced combined pressure, built up over several years, from the European Parliament and EU countries critical of Israel’s settlement activity to act. But now, as she tries to reassert her role as a trusted broker in the Middle East peace process, the labeling decision has made her task difficult.

“For Mogherini it’s never been the right time,” said Hugh Lovatt, the Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “She ran out of runway and had to issue it before the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on November 16, because member states said ‘we don’t want to have to bring this up again.’”

In the immediate aftermath, Israeli canceled some meetings, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “The labeling of products of the Jewish state by the European Union brings back dark memories; Europe should be ashamed of itself.”

Then, at the end of November, Israel announced that it was suspending diplomatic contact with EU officials involved in peace efforts with the Palestinians.

“There have been a lot of gesticulations from the Israelis,” said one European diplomat, adding that particular ire had been directed at France, Belgium, Malta, Ireland and Sweden — countries traditionally seen as being more likely to criticize Israel.

But the diplomat said the EU is talking to Israel as before, pointing out that Fernando Gentilini, the EU’s Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, did not raise the issue on his recent visit to Israel.

The Israeli reaction “is an intimidation technique that the Israelis have tried and tested many times,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “For us, there’s no fundamental questioning of our relationship with Israel.”

Hostage to politics

Mogherini had a model for how not to proceed, in the previous attempt, by her predecessor, Catherine Ashton.

“It was handled badly,” a source close to this year’s deliberations said of the labeling guidelines proposed in 2013. “The Americans never heard about the proposal [before it was issued] and neither did the Israelis.”

Ashton’s push came at a time when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to revitalize the peace process. Israel complained and at Kerry’s request the EU shelved the proposal, which was hardly heard from again during the rest of Ashton’s tenure.

This time around, the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians were informed before the guidelines were released. “The work of quiet diplomacy,” the source said.

Another element of the strategy employed by Mogherini’s team was to attempt to use both political and technical arguments. Unlike the Ashton move, which was handled exclusively through the European External Action Service, this time more prominence was given to the role played by the Commission’s trade directorate.

“The EEAS chose to put communication on this matter in the hands of DG Trade, and say it was purely technical,” an EU official said. “As a way to unload the burden.”

In issuing the guidelines, an EU official argued the Commission was merely responding to member states’ request for “full and efficient implementation of existing legislation when it comes to the [Israeli] settlements.”

“This notice does not create any new legislative rules,” a Commission spokesperson said. “While it reflects the Commission’s understanding of the relevant EU legislation, enforcement remains the primary responsibility of member states.”

European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskisreiterated that the labeling instructions were just “a technical issue, not a political stance.”

The problem, according to Lovatt, was that by delaying publication out of fear of stoking tensions in the region, “Ashton and then Mogherini held the labeling guidelines hostage to political considerations — so they’ve lost the legal, technical argument which they’ve had in previous situations.”

He compared the labeling fuss to the way Brussels brought in its rules for financing going to entities located beyond Israel’s 1967 borders.

“There was no attempt to intervene politically to delay the EU’s funding guidlines in July 2013,” Lovatt said. “In that case the EU stuck to its guns without having to sacrifice political capital.”

Instead, on labeling, “it has taken three years and two ministerial letters to write three pages,” one exasperated diplomat pointed out. “We organized the Crimea sanctions against Russia in three weeks! It’s unfortunate, if this had gone ahead three years ago we would have avoided the hysterics.”

This article was written by Vince Chadwick and Maia De La Baume and was published on the Politico website on 04/01/2016


Special update: EU labelling guidelines

EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, left, speaks during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, before holding a bilateral meeting in the Prime Minister's Jerusalem offices, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Jim Hollander, Pool)

As you will be aware, and after much fanfare, the EU published its guidelines on labelling of products in the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Here at EIPA we think that in the midst of a continuing wave of indiscriminate terror attacks against Israel’s civilian population, the decision to publish these guidelines makes zero political sense from a set of EU institutions that want to be seen as an honest broker in the Peace Process.

The EU’s Foreign Policy Chief can try and dress this move up as consumer protection, a technical trade detail or as a non-binding set of guidelines, but to the vast majority of Israelis it will be viewed very simply: as a slap in the face and an overt political move to punish Israel.

What is worse is that EU labelling of settlement products gives credence to the Mahmoud Abbas narrative that the stabbing attacks and car-rammings are somehow linked to settlements.

This lack of balance and a feeling of Israel getting the stick while the Palestinian authority gets the carrot has already had grave consequences for the EU- Israel relationship. This relationship is very important and we at EIPA are concerned at the needless deterioration of it.

As we write, Israel and the EU are engaged in a game of tit for tat. In retaliation at the publication of the EU guidelines – which in short will see an EU refusal to recognise products from the West Bank and the Golan Heights as “product of Israel”, instead they must say “product of West bank (Israeli settlement)” – Israel has done the following. 

  • President Rivlin has cancelled his planned visit to the EU in Brussels on December
  • The EU envoy to Israel was summoned to the MFA and was reprimanded
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has suspended dialogue with the EU on a number of fronts
  • Deputy Foreign Minister Hotoveli said the MFA will suspend all peace negotiations with the EU
  • Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked said she will examine taking legal steps against the EU
  • Minister Uri Ariel has returned his European made Citroen and is now driving a Japanese car

The question has to be asked: Was a move on labelling even necessary? What ends does it serve from an EU perspective other than souring the political milk with one side in the peace process?

EIPA will be working hard to convince the various Foreign ministries around Europe that this move should absolutely not be implemented if European capitals want to enjoy a balanced and harmonious relationship with the state of Israel.

The actions of the EU are an ample example of how not to behave diplomatically and politically. This damage will take time and effort to repair. EIPA are committed to facilitate this much needed rapprochement in the weeks ahead.

To read the Guidelines click here