In the months before Shimon Peres’s passing, journalist Amira Lam held a series of meetings with the man who was the last of Israel’s founding fathers. During their talk, Peres opens up about the Dimona reactor, his relationship with Rabin, and the settlements.
Mr. Peres, do you have a dialogue with death?
“Death is a question that has no answer, so I don’t deal with it. President François Mitterrand told me in one of the conversations we had before his death that we all know that we will one day cease to be. The real problem is not death, but life. You could be dead while you’re alive, and you could also live after your death.”
In the months that preceded his passing, I held a series of meetings with Shimon Peres. The objective was to gather material for a movie, perhaps a docudrama, to tell his life story, with a famous actor to play him. The idea amused him, and every now and again he would joke with me about the choice of actor, debating between Robert Redford and Kevin Costner.
Peres understood that the time he had left was limited, but refused to let that come into our meetings. No interview, as far as he was concerned, was a goodbye interview, and no conversation was his last. The conversations with him were fascinating. He knew how to tell a story, and he had many stories to tell.
But it was actually in our last few conversations, perhaps because of the movie, that Peres felt comfortable to speak with greater candor. The years of his life unfolded before us like a great drama—from sailing against the wind in the early 1950s when he established the Israel Aerospace Industries, through the Entebbe Operation and his attitude towards the settlements, to his complicated relationship with Yitzhak Rabin, which ended with a hug right before he was murdered.
Peres allowed himself to say things he never said before, at least not in public: on what happened when he visited the settlement in Sebastia near Nablus, the forged document that convinced the French to build a nuclear reactor for Israel, and his insistence not to bring the United States in on the secret of the reactor without first consulting with the French.
Most of our conversations took place after he left the President’s Residence. Peres didn’t have an official position, but his schedule was still packed with meetings, lectures and interviews. Usually, we’d meet at his office at the Peres Center for Peace. We almost always scheduled the meeting for an hour and a half, but ended up talking for two, after which he would abruptly slap his hand on the table and say “That it’s, we’re done for today,” get up, and leave.
From one meeting to the next, Peres grew weaker. This weakness was mostly apparent in his voice. Sometimes, when his memory betrayed him, and he forgot a date or a place, he’d tell me: “We need a new division of labor between man and computers: Let the computer remember and man dream. Man doesn’t need to remember, there’s someone to remember for him. Leave me to dream.”
‘The problem in life is not what to be, it’s what to do’
When I asked Peres if it was hard for him to leave public life, he responded: “What’s easy? What’s hard? People sometimes think that going on vacation is easy. Me, as I always say, it bores to death. Everything is relative, even what it means to be happy. To me, peace brings more happiness than money. There’s a greater gain in love than in your bank account. The problem in life is not what to be, it’s what to do.”
And even though at the time we were still six months away from the US election, Peres added, “The problem is that in Israel, there’s a cult around the government. But it won’t be Donald Trump who ends up running the world, even if he wins the election. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook will run the world. Because what runs the world today is a new mechanism of global companies that hold the money and the power.
“In this world, there are also elements outside of government that make decisions. We don’t need governments for that. My optimism today comes from my faith in those global companies. On the one hand, there is a wave of xenophobia and nationalism prevalent today. You can see it with Brexit and in Turkey, in the power that Trump is gaining. There will always be waves like that over the course of human history. But if these waves continue, we’ll go back to borders, wars, mistakes. That will be stupid for the world to do. Science has no borders. That is why I believe that in the end, the new world of science will win, not the one of nationalism.
“However, if we were to return to me and the fact I have no public role, it would be quite the opposite. Ever since I left the President’s Residence, I’ve been feeling that I needed to work even harder. In general, I believe a person should work. Not stand in front of the mirror all day and examine how he looks, how he feels, and how he’s seen. That’s not interesting. The politicians of today are too preoccupied with that; unfortunately, they’re mostly focused on themselves.”
‘The settlers still don’t heed the government’s orders’
I asked Peres if there were things he regretted, and what mistakes he had made. “I don’t have regrets for a simple reason: there’s no value or use for them. What are you going to do with regret? It’s self pity. The French say, ‘It’s better to be sorry than to regret.’ There’s nothing I’ve regretted.”
I asked him about the settlements, reminding him of Sarah Nachshon, who held her son Abraham’s circumcision at the Cave of the Patriarchs, defying government orders. Sadly, the baby died several months later, and she insisted on burying him in Hebron. Peres, the defense minister at the time, authorized the burial.
Some say your authorization led to renewed Jewish burial in Hebron. This is an issue you haven’t discussed. Have you repressed it?
“It’s the kind of moment you don’t forget. Even if I haven’t spoken about it all these years, it’s stayed with me. But let’s look at the big picture: A woman walking with her dead child, wrapped in blankets and embraced in her arms, passing by checkpoints, walking and walking. I did the math. I oppose the settlements, but you also need to know what are the exceptions to the rule. A man holding a hammer thinks every problem is a nail. In this case, there were emotions involved: a grief-stricken mother who had lost her son. So even if you do have a hammer, not everyone is the same nail. This is an incident I remember and go back to in my thoughts. She marched, charged forward, didn’t listen. The soldiers at the checkpoints didn’t know what to do. She was determined and grief-stricken. I didn’t want her to be hit or arrested. So she was allowed to make an unusual decision for humane reasons. That’s what I did, and I think I did the right thing, even if it is a moment I think back on a lot.”
Peres knows the Left never forgave him his part in the establishment of the settlement enterprise. During our conversations, he unloaded the burden he has been carrying for years. He revealed that the instructions came from people who were at the time part of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s close circle of advisors.
“I went to Sebastia to demand that (the settlers—ed) leave,” he says. “When I got there along with then IDF chief of staff, Motta (Mordechai) Gur, we were welcomed with clapping and singing. I told them: ‘Dear friends, you’re mistaken. I didn’t come here to ask you to stay. I came here to demand that you leave. And then Rabbi Levinger, who was the leading figure there, tore his clothes in mourning. They started shouting at me.
“When I was Yitzhak Rabin’s defense minister, he appointed two advisors: Arik Sharon and Gandhi (Rehavam Ze’evi). Both were right-wing, both supported the settlement enterprise, and both led the battle against me from the Prime Minister’s Office. The settlers insisted on not leaving. While we were sitting and talking, legions of settlers started filling the surrounding area. Someone else was advising them against me, instructing them on how to act, and they had been updated on the situation. Motta and I were stunned. We couldn’t understand how they knew everything that was happening (in the leadership). Afterwards, the government instructed me to try to reach a compromise with them. Offer them to leave quickly, within a month. I offered that to them, and they rejected it. In the end, it was agreed to postpone the decision by three months.”
And what happened after three months?
“What happened was that the settlers didn’t heed the government’s orders, and to this very day they don’t.”
But why you did initiate the founding of the settlement of Ofra?
“Because I wanted to establish something there that was similar to the Nahal, have soldiers working and guarding there. Our situation in Jerusalem was weak. We wanted to build a radar station. The settlers came to me and said they wanted to settle in Tall Asur. I said, ‘You know what? You’ll work at the radar station.’ I treated them like the Nahal soldiers.”
And now, when you see the entire settlement how do you feel?
“Everyone knows I oppose these settlements—I did then and I still do now. When there was a change of power from Mapai to the Likud, there were maybe 20-30 settlements and 6,000 settlers. At the time, this really wasn’t considered a problem. If there were only 4,000 settlers today, we wouldn’t be having a problem. But when there are half a million, that’s another thing entirely. That happened after we left power. Of course I’m sorry that it exists. You need to understand, I was never a supporter of ‘Two banks has the Jordan River, (this is ours and, that one as well—part of the famous Hebrew poem The East of the Jordan by Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky).’ My entire life I’ve believed that a moral Jewish state on part of the Land of Israel was better than being on the entire Land of Israel but in a state of perpetual conflict.
“This remains the most contentious issue between us and the world. Because the UN decided on two states, provided two maps, and we accepted it. But instead of implementing the two maps, we decided to have just one. The possibility of only having one map is the saddest thing that ever happened to us.”
The Left also won’t forgive you for not going to elections immediately after Rabin’s murder. With the political climate at the time, you probably would have won big. Later, you lost to Netanyahu.
“I wasn’t even sure we’d win. Even Rabin won the last election with only a two-seat advantage. It was hard for the Labor party to shake off the image of ‘corruption.’ Mostly, I was afraid of a civil war. There was a lot of rage among the people at the time. I thought we needed to be more cautious, to calm things down. That was when I was truly afraid a civil war might break out.”
‘That was the first and last time Rabin hugged me’
His relationship with Yitzhak Rabin was one of the most charged topics I spoke to Peres about. But he sounded surprisingly very serene and sobered, as if he had already made his peace and forgave the man who was his greatest partner and rival.
Do you remember when the hatred started growing between you, or why?
“Everyone views the issues in the relationship between me and Rabin as a personal matter. But in reality, the rift between us started simply over ideological division. The Labor party, which was then called Mapai, was at the time made up of three different camps, and we were from different camps. The first time I saw him, we were still in the General Federation of Students and Young Workers in Israel. Later, he was in the Palmach and I was in kibbutz Alumot and was recruited to the Haganah. I was a (David) Ben-Gurion man, and he was a (Zionist activist Yitzhak) Tabenkin man. We also had some friends in common, one of them was (Mapai founding member) Shraga Netzer’s son. He was from Ramat Yohanan, a close friend of Rabin’s and a close friend of mine. We saw one another briefly at his place. We weren’t friends and we didn’t talk much. Even then, there was tension in the air.
“Ahdut HaAvoda, which Rabin belonged to, groomed its people and protected them. In Mapai, which I was a member of, each was on his own. I was seen as an adversary. I know people like to say that he was a Sabra while I wasn’t, he was in the Palmach and I wasn’t. But that wasn’t what mattered. The rift was the result of us being in different camps.”
But he had fame from being a Palmach and an IDF man, and you didn’t.
“Despite all I did for security, I never asked for anything; not ranks, nor anything else. When they wanted to give me an honorary rank, I refused. I was more interested in other things. Rabin once told me: ‘The difference between me and you is that you love building power and I know how to use it.’ I, for example, wanted to buy thefirst computer for the defense establishment. Rabin, at first, opposed it. He said rifles and bullets were preferable. Rabin also objected to the (nuclear) reactor. We really did have two different worldviews. But make no mistake, Ben-Gurion loved Rabin.”
“You have to understand something many people don’t understand. The relationship between me and Rabin was asymmetrical. I didn’t have any hate. If they do a post-mortem examination on me, they won’t find a lot of hate in my heart. The problem, if you ask me, was that Rabin was surrounded by people who incited against me, until he was incited. From a young age, I was vilified for everything. They gave me a hard time. I was lonely and I wasn’t famous or anything. And I didn’t always know what to do. There was no one to defend me. At a certain point, I made the first strategic decision in my life—that I would decide who I’m offended by. And I decided not to be offended by Ahdut HaAvoda and Rabin. JusIt was simple, though it wasn’t easy, it was a process. There were a lot of offenses in the middle. I was slow to get to that point in my mind. Perhaps even a bit too late. There were years that my relationship with Rabin bothered me.”
“In the early 1990s, we were both part of the negotiations with thePalestinians. There were peace talks at the time in Washington, but I realized peace will not be made there. There were only press conferences there. I went to Yitzhak and said: Nothing will come out of this, only press conferences. Let me try doing it my way. He said: As long as it doesn’t hurt (the existing talks). I gave him my word. Once, he wrote to me asking me to stop halfway through. I wasn’t bothered by it. And, as I predicted, the talks in Washington were unsuccessful, while what I was doing was starting to work. Meanwhile, since he was the prime minister, the public viewed this matter—of the Palestinians—which I was dealing with, as something Yitzhak was responsible for. The right wing protested against him. They gave him a hard time. He was miserable.
“I, of course, stood by his side. I saw how he was being humiliated. And then we decided to hold that rally in which he was murdered. He was sure he would lose the elections. By then, we had become much closer. We’d meet in private at his home every Friday. We kept talking about practical matters, and he wouldn’t even let (his wife) Leah in the room when we were meeting there.
“When we were organizing that rally, he told me: ‘Shimon, I’m worried people won’t show up.’ It was right after the event at the Wingate Institute where protesters swore at him and after they made a coffin for him in Jerusalem. As you know, a lot of people showed up in the end. It was the happiest day in Yitzhak’s life. I’ve never heard him sing before. He hugged and kissed me. It was the first time Rabin hugged me. The first and the last. In hindsight, it was a goodbye hug. I missed him a lot after that.”
Building the Dimona nuclear reactor
What was the biggest decision you’ve ever made?
“Primarily, that I would look forward and not back. More than recreating the past, I’m interested in dealing with the future. But the biggest privilege I ever had was working with Ben-Gurion.
“The most important thing I’ll ever do in life, I hope to do tomorrow. I’ll tell you this without any modesty: Everything I’ve ever done has always been met not with applause, but with derision. The hardest thing in life has perhaps been ignoring this derision.
“So (the biggest decision) might have been the reactor, which was met with a lot of opposition. It might have been the Israel Aerospace Industries. It might have been Entebbe. And it might have been stopping the inflation.
“No one believed me. No one believed in me. Not just the people on the street; no one believed in me among the leadership, either. The experience I gained with the Dimona reactor allowed me to learn that despite the derision, despite the closed doors—the impossible was possible. “
Is it true the Dimona reactor was built thanks to a forged document?
“Early on, I didn’t have a lot of connections in France. But I was a member of a socialist party, and I met several socialists thanks to my ties in the Socialist International (SI). The head of the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) party at the time was Guy Mollet. I met him at the Socialist International on the eve of the 1955 elections in France, and we became friends.
“Later, he was elected prime minister. But despite the fact I had some very close friends in France, there were disagreements in the country about supporting Israel. There was no precedent for that in the world, for one country to allow another country to build a reactor without a commitment to international supervision. This was the first time something like this was happening. So they gave us a reactor, but several parts were missing. We negotiated with the French Committee for the Military Applications of Atomic Energy, as well as the French defense minister, PrimeMinister Guy Mollet, and National Defense Minister Bourgès (Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury). There were a lot of arguments and negotiations.
“And there was one dramatic night in 1957. We didn’t have a signed agreement. The French government was on the verge of collapse. Mollet had resigned. But before he resigned, Bourgès asked me to ask him (Mollet) that he (Bourgès) would be his replacement. That’s how close our relationship was. So I talked to Mollet and he agreed. Now, when Bourgès was appointed prime minister, I was in a position to write him a note, so I did. He stepped out of the meeting. I told him: ‘Listen, the meeting is about to end and we don’t have your signature as the national defense minister. Sign it as the national defense minister.’ But he wasn’t (the national defense minister) at the time, so he signed it with the previous day’s date. Meaning, he forged the date and signed it.”
What happened with the intelligence plane?
“One day, a British jet plane flew over Cyprus. Our intelligence establishment thought the plane was looking for our nuclear reactor. They went to Ben-Gurion and told him: Our big secret has been found out. I was in Africa at the time, and I was called back. It was Passover eve of 1957. I arrived in Sde Boker (where Ben-Gurion lived) with Golda (Meir) and the Mossad director at the time. Golda and the Mossad director said he had to go to America, reveal the big secret to them, and tell them we were stopping (the construction)—otherwise the world powers would give us hell. I said that even if the plane did fly by, it didn’t see anything. What could it see? Bulldozers? I told them we can’t reveal something like that (to the Americans) without first talking to the French. It was top secret, and if we wanted to reveal that secret we had to consult with the French. Ben-Gurion accepted my position. It was a moment of crisis.
“By the way, it was a miracle the reactor was kept a secret, because thousands of people were working on it. Today, we would have done everything to hide it from the media, and it’s doubtful we would have succeeded. I always say: there are things the people don’t want to know. The people don’t want to know how many tanks the IDF has. The people agree that secrets must be kept to protect the nation. We don’t have to tell them everything.”
‘We’re experts on the past, but there’s no expert on the future’
Why don’t you make your position known on recent diplomatic and political issues?
“Because it’s not the right time at this point. And I don’t think it’ll help anything. The problem is that the ears are closed. No one listens to anything these days.”
What would you have wanted to say?
“I’d like us to go back to being a nation that is both democratic and Jewish. If we say that ‘a good Arab is a dead Arab,’ then that’s not democracy, and it’s saddening. The Torah explicitly says: ‘Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ We must not have discrimination. It goes against the Torah.”
What happened to us? How did we get to this place?
“I’m less interested in analyzing the problem and more interested in fixing it. Those who make racist comments disgrace the State of Israel. I can’t accept it. No one needs to accept it. It’s not to our benefit, when people talk against gays and Israeli Arabs. All Arabs must be killed? We do have the rule of law here. ‘Zion shall be redeemed through justice.’ Begin also said that ‘There are judges in Jerusalem.’ So why aren’t we protecting the justice system more? A Jew was once almost killed because he was mistaken for an Arab. That was absurd, this argument. Just as I hurt when someone tries to kill a Jew, I hurt when a Jew tries to kill someone because he’s an Arab.”
Do you still think peace is possible?
“For us, the Arab world remains something static—made of half Shiite and half Sunni and that’s it. People don’t understand there is a young generation and that a revolution is underway there. Out of 400 million Arabs, more than half of them are under 25. That’s something different altogether. We’re experts on the past, but there’s no expert on the future. The future needs a vision, and we lack that today. But the thing Israel lacks most today is peace. The fact there is no ongoing peace process at the moment is the main thing that bothers me.”
Politics get a bad name.
Why the European Parliament, and other EU institutions, need to take a strong position on the movement calling for a boycott of the State of Israel.
Brussels took upon itself the Snakes and Ladders task of building a common European position on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by pushing in the last five years for a hands-on approach designed to ensure a return on the European political and economic investment in the region.
This policy of “differentiation,” in Brussels jargon, reflects the European Union’s self-professed determination “to take any action to preserve the two-state solution on the ground” by making a distinction in its bilateral agreements with Israel between Green Line Israel and Palestinian territories. So far, the policy has yielded two sets of EU Guidelines, on Israeli participation to Horizon 2020 in July 2013 and on indication of origin of products, respectively EU labeling of settlement products, in November 2015.
Doves in Israel, and around the world, anticipated that the EU’s new policy would expose the allegedly pro-Palestinian grassroots movement for what it is, an umbrella of organizations and individuals that deliberately question the legitimacy of the State of Israel and that represent a hotbed for anti-Semitism.
There was hope that once there was a clear EU policy distinction between the State of Israel and its settlements in the territories, the voices calling for a boycott of Israel would change their tune and start lobbying Brussels to instead begin exerting its economic leverage to foster a vibrant Palestinian civil society and an accountable Palestinian political leadership.
Instead, the EU’s policy is becoming the thin end of the wedge that BDS activists use to access EU institutions, employing Trojan horse tactics that seek nothing less than a complete severance of economic, cultural, scientific ties with Israel.
High Representative Federica Mogherini has repeatedly reassured Prime Minister Netanyahu of “the EU’s opposition of boycotts against Israel”. And in all other bilateral forums, committees and subcommittees with Israel, EU officials are all singing from the same sheet: The policy of differentiation does not constitute a boycott of the State of Israel, but merely an implementation of existing EU legislation.
I could question the good will and intention of the EU diplomats, who selectively isolate one of the core issues of the conflict, as if it exists in a vacuum, or the zealous use of “existing EU legislation” for a still in progress European foreign policy. It is not the purpose of this piece, however.
I would like to draw attention to the fact that the line between diplomatic pressure put on the government of Israel on the issue of settlements and a fully-fledged boycott of the Israel is getting more and more blurred as BDS activists are offered shelter under the EU’s freedom of speech. Europe cannot afford itself to go down that path,regardless of the stalemate in the peace process.
BDS leader Omar Barghouti is frequently invited to address members of the European Parliament, the Delegation for relations for Palestine (DPAL), and other forums, and offered the public space to openly call for the boycott of Israeli products, academic exchanges and other types of sanctions.
His crude tactic of trying to “make the occupation unbearable” comes at the cost of demonizing and entire population and infringing on their civil liberties by seeking their isolation in trade, cultural exchanges, academic cooperation and security.
Mirroring the institutions’ impulse for “a continued, full and effective implementation of EU legislation,” one cannot but wonder why does EU shy away from substantiating its rejection of BDS. This position has been articulated on multiple occasions, including in MEP Martina Anderson’s answer on the question of the legitimacy of the BDS movement: “The EU rejects the BDS campaign attempts to isolate Israel and is opposed to any boycott of Israel.”
Similarly, European Council President Donald Tusk, in his first visit to Israel in August 2015, ahead of the publication of EU guidelines on labelling, reassured Prime Minister Netanyahu that “we have to avoid words like boycott because for sure this is not the intention of Europe. No country in Europe wants to boycott Israel.”
Concrete action needs to be taken by Brussels. The EU’s guidelines on the eligibility of Israeli entities participation to Horizon 2020 from July 2013 did not dissuade BDS activists who are lobbying members of the European Parliament from continuing to question, three years later, the participation and allocation of funds to the Israel Ministry of Public Security through LAW-TRAIN, an EU-funded project on drug trafficking.
Similarly, another European legislator addressing the European Commission on its Patronage of WATEC Italy 2016, questions the participation in the fair of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. Furthermore, an entire political group finds it “balanced” to call for an end to all cooperation between Israel and the European Defence Agency, and to allow no funding to Israeli entities through Horizon 2020.
Unmistakably, Europe is going through a period of social disorder marked by disenchantment with mainstream politics, and one does not need further proof following Sunday’s results in the French presidential elections.
As such, for the sake of preventing further scapegoating tendencies and radicalization, I would like to make the following recommendations:
- Allocate resources and establish a task force within the European Commission that would monitor and investigate the impact of BDS on the European communities, possibly under Commissioner Vera Jurova (Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality);
- Issue a notice to all member states, asking them to monitor the activities of BDS supporters and take further legal action in line with the Council Framework decision from November 2008 that “racism and xenophobia are direct violations of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and rule of law” and to take measures to punish the following intentional conduct: Publicly inciting to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by race, color, religion descent or ethnic origin;
- Prevent EU taxpayers’ money to fund any entity that calls for the boycott of the State of Israel;
- Issue a notice on BDS supporters’ access to the EU institutions and a disclaimer for any organizations or entities that call for a boycott of Israel.
European political leadership, as well as EU policy makers, should indeed “take further action in order to protect the viability of the two-state solution.” They should not allow, under any circumstances, their policy to be misused and ultimately abused by BDS activists operating under the pretext of freedom of speech and association.
The above recommendations would ensure that the EU’s stated aim of getting a meaningful return on its investment would encounter many more ladders than snakes going forward.
This article was written by Teodora Coptil, a consultant specializing on the EU’s policy for MENA region and head of institutional relations at Europe Israel Public Affairs, a Brussels-based NGO advocating for a strategic EU-Israel bilateral relation and accountability of EU aid going to the Palestinian Authority. it was also published on Ynet.
Despite policy disagreements, officials confirm high-level bilateral Association Council might convene next year for first time since 2012
After years in which relations between the European Union and Israel have been frosty, bilateral ties will take a significant leap forward in 2017, senior officials from both sides said this week.
In one notable sign of such warming ties, Jerusalem and the EU are in advanced talks over convening the EU-Israel Association Council, a bilateral forum on ministerial level, early next year. The last such meeting took place in 2012.
“Quite a lot of good things are happening, often unseen by the naked eye, but they are there,” Nicholas Westcott, the director of the EU External Action Service’s North Africa and Middle East department, said this week during a visit in Tel Aviv. “We hope early next year to have an Association Council, which we haven’t had for a while, to look at a ministerial level how we can take the relationship forward.”
If a EU-Israel Association Council meeting were to be held in 2017, the EU would likely be represented by its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Israel by Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, The Times of Israel has learned.
In addition, the EU “would like to develop something we call partnership priorities,” said Westcott, who is the second-most senior EU diplomat dealing with the Middle East, after Mogherini. The so-called partnership priorities are a new instrument regulating bilateral ties that emerged of the EU’s 2015 review of its neighborhood policy program.
Visiting Jerusalem this week for the second time since he took over his position, Westcott met with various senior officials in the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and COGAT, the branch of the Israeli army that deals with civilian matters in the West Bank.
“The main focus was on EU-Israel cooperation, which is moving in a relatively positive direction,” he said. “We are looking at areas where we can deepen cooperation within the existing framework and beginning to think about what the next generation of framework might be.”
The anticipated rapprochement does not entail a formal upgrade of ties. But several officials from both sides said this week that there are clear indications that Israel and the EU will improve bilateral relations in various ways. This is projected to happen despite remaining differences of opinion, such as the union’s vehement opposition to settlement expansion and Israeli demolitions of EU-funded structures in Area C of the West Bank.
There are “significant signs that the bilateral relationship is making progress and going forward,” one senior EU official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon concurred with that assessment and confirmed ongoing talks over convening the EU-Israel Association Council in the near future. He added that this particular forum is just one of various expressions of ongoing bilateral dialogue between Jerusalem and Brussels, such as the annual EU-Israel Seminar on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Antisemitism, which is taking place later this month.
Last planned major update in ties fell over Cast Lead
After the 11th and last meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council, held in July 2012 in Brussels, the union said it viewed the event as a “demonstration of the significance the EU attaches to its relations with the State of Israel.” The council meeting reiterated the “importance of further developing our broad bilateral partnership,” the EU said in a statement at the time.
But in July 2013 the EU angered Israel by issuing new regulations according to which no Israeli body that operates or has links beyond the Green Line can receive EU funding or have any cooperation with the EU.
Jerusalem replied by vowing not sign any further agreements with the European Union until the EU “clarifies” its new regulations. In the wake of the heated arguments over the so-called guidelines, no Association Council was held that year and in the following years.
EU-Israel relations took another hit in November 2015, when the union instructed its member states to label certain Israeli goods made outside the pre-1967 lines. Israeli officials fumed and, amid accusations of anti-Semitism, vowed to curtail bilateral ties.
“We have to reset our relationship with the EU,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in January. “There is a natural tendency in the EU establishment to single out Israel and treat it in ways that other countries are not being dealt with, and especially other democracies,” he said. “And I think it’s wrong. I think it should be corrected.”
However, after a meeting with Mogherini the following month, Netanyahu said he was ready to bury the hatchet.
“Israel and the European Union have agreed to put relations between us back on track,” he declared. Mogherini had assured him that the labeling was “non-binding” and does not reflect the EU’s position on Israel’s final borders, he added.
“Of course, this is not to say that there will not be friction. There are things that we do not agree on,” he said.
Indeed, the EU’s longstanding opposition to Israeli settlement expansions has been one of the key sources of tensions in the bilateral relationship, which are anchored in the EU-Israel Association Agreement from 2000.
In 2005, the two parties agreed upon a so-called Action Plan, an important bilateral agreement that sought to “gradually integrate Israel into European policies and programmes.”
In 2008, the two sides agreed to upgrade the Action Plan, but due to the break out of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza a few months later — and ongoing arguments over settlement buildings — Brussels froze these negotiations.
The current rapprochement between Israel and the EU is in its fragile early stages and does not entail plans for negotiations over a new Action Plan, officials from both sides stressed this week. However, the current Action Plan remains in force.
Despite the expected detente, the union remains strongly opposed to Israel’s construction of housing units beyond the Green Line. Westcott, the senior EU official, said in Tel Aviv this week, called on Israel to take urgent steps to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
“We do not regard the status quo as indefinitely stable. It will become increasingly unstable, in unpredictable ways,” he said. “Something will give — might be sooner, might be later. But it’s not sustainable, so we still have to find a better solution than the status quo. It’s not a stable status quo, it’s evolving all the time. And you never know at what point it will tip, and which way it will tip.”
Westcott disagreed with the assertion, often made by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, that the current turmoil in the region means that Israel must not rush to make territorial concessions.
“Regional instability and uncertainty over the Middle East generally is a factor that makes it, from an EU point of view, more important to make progress with the peace process, rather than less,” he said. “We think that making progress on the peace process is important for overall regional stability.”
Westcott also said he sees an improvement regarding Palestinian incitement against Israelis. The Israeli government has recently brought to his attention “one or two” examples of incitement, “but not a lot,” he told The Times of Israel.
It is possible that Palestinian leaders have realized, in light of increasing international criticism, that incitement is unhelpful in their bid to reach an agreement with Israel, Westcott continued. “And the Palestinians have an interest in creating a conducive environment for a two-state solution.”
The article was published on The Times of Israel.
‘The future belongs to those who innovate,’ Netanyahu says at launch event
After decades of dedicating himself to public life in Israel, anyone would think that 92-year-old former President Shimon Peres would want to put his feet up and enjoy his retirement. But he doesn’t seem to know the meaning of slowing down and appears to become more active with age. On Thursday morning he proved this when he was joined by other top officials to launch the Israeli Innovation Center, which will be established at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa.
Leading movers and shakers in the world of Israeli start-ups and innovation gathered at the center, a non-profit organization that brings together a diverse and multi-faceted spectrum of participants, to hear all about the new innovation hub that highlights some of Israel’s best technologies.
Israel has been dubbed the “Start-up Nation” due to the high number of innovative technologies and successful start-ups that have been developed in the country.
Peres, who was noticeably emotional about the launch, was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation when he took to the stage at the beginning of the event.
“We were a country with limited resources,” Peres said. “We had a small population, but we believed in our vision that led to our creation. We overcame our desolate land, and we turned it into one of agriculture that for the first time was built on hi-tech.”
Peres told the adoring audience that the new center was a source of pride for the country and that it would help bring peace between nations.
He even went on to say that it’s not only Israel who can benefit from innovation, but the whole region. “l call on our neighbors to establish a startup region.”
The current president, Reuven Rivlin, was next to speak and while the applause for him wasn’t as loud as it was for Peres, he was also welcomed with a standing ovation.
Rivlin said that Peres was the symbol of Israeli innovation and that as he gets older, he becomes more creative.
The president highlighted that while there is a lot to be proud of in Israel in terms of technology, there is still a long way to go. He talked about how people from Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities aren’t always given the same opportunities as others. “We are trying to change this,” he said emphatically.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau, who gave an address at the end of the event, also spoke about the disparities that exist within the country. He focused more on the geographical inequalities and said that he was working to make sure that every part of the country is able to enjoy the benefits of Israel’s technology and innovation sectors.
He joked with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai that Tel Aviv wasn’t the only city in the country that can benefit from investments in innovation infrastructure and that he wanted to see towns and cities from the north and the south of the country leading the way.
Netanyhau noted that countries around the world turn to Israel because “they know that our security systems and technologies are the best.” He said that because Israel has years of experience in dealing with terror, it has become a global leader in technology.
In a very impassioned speech, Netanyahu excitedly told the audience that this year alone he had met with some 120 heads of states and foreign ministers, and when talking about the success story of Israeli innovation he told them all: “The future belongs to those who innovate.”’
He also had some criticism and said that while Israel should be lauded for what it has achieved, there are still problems. The prime minister noted that education needed to be improved and also that markets should be freed up so that more people have the opportunity to innovate.
In what was a moment of comic relief at an otherwise formal event, the guests of honor – Rivlin, Peres, Netanyahu and his wife Sara, all tried on Virtual Reality headsets so that they could experience the cutting-edge technology firsthand. To the amusement of many in the audience, Netanyahu removed his headset after a few seconds as it appeared that it wasn’t working. Rivlin, Peres and Sara, on the other hand, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Dr Yossi Vardi, one of Israel’s first high-tech entrepreneurs, led a panel titled “Innovation as a Tool for Social Empowerment.” He introduced the participants – Dr. Kira Radinsky, Sari Rott and Liat Segal – as some of the leading figures in the Israeli innovation scene. He said that the fact they were all women was by chance and that they were chosen because they are the best in their field.
In a tribute to what the Peres Center is all about, a group of five children from the northern Arab village of Daburiyya presented a cutting-edge recycling robot that they had created. They each took turns to explain how and why they had invented the robot and received possibly the loudest applause of the day.
The Israeli Innovation Center will open its doors in 2018 to hundreds of thousands of visitors from Israel and around the world, with a focus on students, soldiers, ministers and heads of state, tourists, and business delegations from around the world. It will attempt to tell the story of Israeli technologies that have changed the world.
The article was published on i24news on the 21th of July 2016
“I am glad to hear his commitment to two states. EU ready to help,” EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini tweeted Wednesday night after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu publicly pledged his support for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in his first clear policy statement on the issue since his new government was formed last week.
“I don’t support a one state solution – I don’t believe that’s a solution at all,” Netanyahu said as he met with Mogherini who is on a two-day visit.
“I support the vision of two states for two peoples – a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, and I look forward to discussing with you how we can advance that vision forth in a practical, secure and responsible way,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu assured Mogherini that he was committed to resolving the conflict.
“Israel wants peace. I want peace. We want a peace that would end the conflict once and for all. My position has not changed,” Netanyahu said. He added that Israel has taken tangible steps to make life easier for the Palestinians.
“We’ve taken economic steps, added measures for reconstruction and development and ensuring ongoing humanitarian support. We’ll continue with those practical steps,” the Prime Minister said.
The Prime Minister added that “if I look around at our region and the world, the most dangerous enemy of peace is Iran.” ” Iran is arming and training Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and Hamas terrorists in Gaza. Iran is opening a third terror front against Israel in the Golan and it is pursuing its nuclear program, which I believe poses the greatest threat to the region and to the world.”
He stressed that the Lausanne program ”will not block Iran’s path to the bomb.” “Iran’s emerging deal with the world powers facilitates and legitimizes Iran’s continued development of the capabilities of forming nuclear weapons. And by prematurely easing sanctions, the deal will give Iran many billions of dollars with which to fund its aggression and its worldwide terror campaign.”
Prior to her arrival in the region, Mogherini said that the EU wanted to play a major role in relaunching the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians “on the basis of the two-state solution.”
“The EU is interested in peace and security for Israel and for the region because this is also our European peace and security.”
Earlier in Ramallah, where she met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Mogherini spoke against the status quo and said that it was a European, Palestinian and Israeli interest “to move forward, because there is no status quo.”
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzi Hotovely, who also met with Mogherini in Jerusalem, told the EU top diplomat that for the peace process to resume, the Palestinians need to return to the negotiating table and must halt their unilateral steps against Israel in the international arena.
Referring to the Jerusalem terror attack earlier in the day in which two Border Police Officers were hurt by a Palestinian terrorists who tried to run them down, Hotovely said that Europe should strongly condemn terrorism, as well as back Israel’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
Hotovely welcomed Mogherini comment that she was interested in coming now after the establishment of the new Israeli government to listen to both sides, saying that her visit at the time had a “great deal of importance.”
Mogherini is scheduled to meet the leader of the Opposition Zionist Union Isaac Herzog and President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday, before she returns to Brussels.
By Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor at Europe Israel Press Association.
Netanyahu’s fourth government will face challenges coming from all sides: existential threats from enemies, difficult relations with friends and internal problems.
With the election behind us, and with the lengthy coalition negotiations advancing slowly, it is time to take a look at the serious challenges that the Israeli government will be faced with in the next few years.
• Foreign policy:
The Iranian nuclear deal
There is no doubt that the new deal recently signed by Iran and the world powers will be the central foreign policy concern for the next government. Simply put, this horrific deal is an existential threat to Israel.
Firstly, because it allows the removal of sanctions on Iran, letting Iran regain enough economic stability and strength to start over where it left off and reach its nuclear ambitions.
Worse than that: this new reality will bring the whole region to a nuclear arms race, with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf states developing their own nuclear capabilities out of a sense of self-preservation. Nuclear weapons in a region defined by constant instability are a recipe for disaster.
It will only be a question of time until one of those nuclear powers becomes overtaken by Islamist groups. Just imagine what Islamic State could do with a nuclear bomb.
During the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was strongly criticized for speaking to Congress about his opposition to US President Barack Obama’s attempts to reach such a deal. Today, Congress is the only thing stopping this nuclear deal from being confirmed, and Netanyahu’s foresight deserves recognition.
The new government’s most important foreign policy mission will be to use all the influence that Israel has on Congress to make sure the deal is rejected by it. This is the final battle that Israel can fight to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program through renewed sanctions before being left with only the military option.
Israel’s relations with the United States
The subject of Iran has caused serious harm to an already problematic relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. Up until today, it seemed clear that the disagreements between the world leaders did not affect the historic alliance between both countries.
However, the new low that their relationship has reached makes this question relevant once again.
One of the central strategic tenets of Israeli foreign policy has always been to have a strong alliance with a leading world power. With the establishment of the State of Israel, France served as that world power as Israel’s interests were aligned with France’s interests when confronting Arab nationalist fervor sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, including France’s prized colony, Algeria. France became Israel’s main weapons provider.
However, in the run-up to the Six Day War in 1967, France embargoed all offensive weapons deliveries to Israel. France also refused to deliver 50 aircraft already paid for in full. Israel needed to find a new ally, and it found it in America because of growing Soviet influence in the Arab world.
Ever since the Six Day War, the alliance between the two countries has been rock solid. This alliance was not just based on common interests in the middle of the Cold War, but also on a strong sense of shared values. To some presidents and other American leaders, this alliance also includes strong theological foundations.
Today, Obama is endangering Israel with some unprecedented threats. He cut off arms supply to Israel during the war in Gaza last summer, echoing the French arms embargo that led to the deterioration of that alliance. He is now threatening to remove the automatic US veto on UN Security Council resolutions.
In all likelihood, this is a personal issue between Obama and Netanyahu, and the next president, whether Democrat or Republican, will know how to renew the strong alliance that preceded Obama.
However, if the Israeli government will be faced with another president who is less than friendly with Israel, it will have to reevaluate its dependence on its alliance with the United States, seeking another world power to take the strategic place of Israel, or look to spread its bids by building strong alliances with a variety of countries, including some in Eastern Europe and Asia.
Israel’s relations with Europe
Israel’s relations with Europe are inherently different from its relations with America. The challenges facing this relationship are also very different.
The relationship between Europe and Israel has always been complex. It must be said that every country in Europe has different interests and every European leader has a different approach to Israel. However, the general rule can be that Europe’s relations with Israel are far more based on mutual economic interests than on military alliances or a sense of shared values, even if these things also exist.
Europe is Israel’s leading trade partner. As such, the main threat to this relationship is the strengthening and growth of the boycott movement.
Israel has managed to contain this threat through effective diplomacy, which caused most world leaders, including all leading European leaders, to publicly denounce attempts to boycott Israel. However, some battles were lost, with some European countries demanding that products coming from Judea and Samaria be marked stating their specific origin.
Israel needs to keep taking this threat seriously. It is a containable threat, but it is a serious threat nonetheless, and if it is not taken seriously it can cause serious damage to the Israeli economy.
• Economic policy:
Price of housing
One of the main issues raised in the campaign was the price of housing – housing prices in Israel have risen at an astonishing rate for the past eight years.
Today, all political parties have committed to solving this problem.
Two immediate steps that need to be taken to solve this crisis are as follows: First of all, the monopoly the state holds on land ownership needs to be slowly dismantled, through the privatization of land ownership.
This needs to be done slowly and effectively so as not to disrupt the market and to ensure the state monopoly is not replaced by a private-owned monopoly, but it needs to be done.
Secondly, the bureaucracy related to building houses is untenable. Today, in order to get a permit to build a house, one must wait around three years, but some analysts claim this can be cut down to less than three months.
There are several more reasons for the dramatic rise in housing prices, but one thing is clear: whatever the composition of the government, if it does not succeed in lowering housing prices, the electorate will hold it responsible for this.
Cost of living
The cost of living in Israel has also risen dramatically in the last few years. This is highlighted by the fact that products made in Israel cost less in Europe than in Israel.
The reason for the high cost of living is simple: Israel is a very small market with very little competition and trade barriers make it almost impossible for international competition to affect the local markets.
Naftali Bennett as economy minister started removing trade barriers to increase competition. However, there is a lot more work that needs to be done.
This is an almost Sisyphean task that requires the review of all trade barriers and local regulations that affect competition.
A government that will deal with this problem effectively will completely revolutionize the quality of life of Israelis.
• Legal policy:
A new legal revolution
In the 1990s, Supreme Court chief justice Aharon Barak engaged what is now known as the “constitutional revolution,” giving a tremendous amount of power to the courts and limiting the power of elected officials. Courts could now cancel legislation passed by parliament, legislative advisers now had a formal veto power to stop any policy advanced by elected officials, all of this while a nomination process unique to Israel for both judges and legislative advisers caused these to be incredibly unrepresentative of the Israeli population.
This situation is not only unacceptable to all those who believe in democracy and self-determination. It is also untenable as policy makers lose their ability to successfully implement policies.
It is now time for a new legal revolution in Israel, one which will return the power to elected officials and allow them to act as policy makers.
• A CRITICAL TIME:
Netanyahu’s fourth government will face challenges coming from all sides: existential threats from enemies, difficult relations with friends and internal problems.
The time ahead will be one of the most challenging in Israel’s recent history, making the current coalition negotiations critical in deciding how Israel will face these challenges.
The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.
The article was published on The Jerusalem Post on the 08th of April 2015