EU – Israel: Deepening bilateral relations while pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace

EU – Israel: Deepening bilateral relations while pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace
Israel's Minister of Intelligence Elazar Stern and EU High Representative Josep Borrell at the EU-Israel Association Council meeting on 3 October 2022, credit: EU

The 12th meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council took place in Brussels on Monday after a suspension of ten years during which no political dialogue between the two parties was possible.

The Israeli side expressed optimism before the meeting and described it as a “significant diplomatic achievement that reflects the improvement in Israel's relations with the EU over the past year”. The Association Council is the highest forum steering Israel-EU relations and deals with the full range of these ties, including in science, the economy, energy and the environment.

Israel’s Ambassador to the EU and NATO, Haim Regev, told The Brussels Times that, “We are looking forward to the many opportunities, which will follow the Association Council, such as adopting Partnership Priorities, cooperating on global issues such as climate and energy, improving our trade agreements, joining more EU programs, enhancing our political dialogue, and more."

The EU side expressed also optimism before the meeting and added political issues to the agenda. “The Association Council will offer an opportunity for wide-ranging discussions on EU-Israel bilateral relations, against the backdrop of global challenges such as Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, the global energy crisis and rising food insecurity.”

The Council listed the same issues as Israel, such as trade, climate change, energy, science and technology, culture, the respect for human rights and democratic principles, freedom of religion as well as the fight against antisemitism. EU wanted also to discuss the Middle East Peace Process, “where the EU hopes to build on the momentum generated at the UN General Assembly”.

Expectations were therefore high on both sides that the meeting would be fruitful and constructive but it seems too early to assess if that was really the case. The meeting ended without any common statement or press conference. Neither side responded immediately to similar questions from The Brussels Times as to whether the meeting had met their expectations.

The concluding Council statement after the meeting listed only the issues that were discussed during the meeting without mentioning the main results – besides the fact that the meeting took place. But apparently some progress was made during the meeting which lasted two and half hours and covered both bilateral issues and the Middle East Peace Proce.

Peter Stano, EU’s lead spokesperson on foreign affairs, told The Brussels Times that the meeting gave new impetus to bilateral cooperation under the Association Agreement: “It was a chance to discuss the multiple dimensions of the partnership between EU and Israel. We agreed to deepen our cooperation further.”

He added that, “The Association Council also provides an important framework to discuss frankly and constructively issues on which the EU and Israel do not always fully agree, notably the Middle East Peace Process, the concerning situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, or Iran and the JCPoA (the nuclear deal with Iran)”.

The meeting had been in the making since last year when a new Israeli government of change replaced Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right government and committed to turn the page in the tense relations with the EU and improve the ties.

As previously reported, the date of the meeting was decided last July in coordination with Israel and after EU and its member states had defined a common EU position. It was already known in July that there would be snap elections in Israel on 1 November and since then the election campaign there has already become heated.

Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid himself did not come in person to the meeting because of the upcoming elections and the current tension in the West Bank. He joined the meeting virtually while the Israeli delegation was led by the Minister of Intelligence, Elazar Stern, an ex-general without much diplomatic experience.

Before the meeting, the EU side referred to Prime Minister Lapid’s speech at United Nation’s General Assembly on 22 September. “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel's security, for Israel's economy and for the future of our children. Peace is not a compromise. It is the most courageous decision we can make.”

It is of course also the right thing for the Palestinians. In his speech at the UN, Lapid said that “despite all the obstacles, still today a large majority of Israelis support the vision of the two-state solution. I am one of them.” He repeated his commitment to the two-state solution in his on-line speech to the Association Council, adding that the Palestinians need to put an end to terrorism and incitement.

EU’s position paper

Peter Stano, the EU spokesperson, confirmed that both sides presented written statements at the meeting. “In addition to a very good discussion, both sides exchanged their respective written statements.”

While the EU common position paper, which consists of 54 paragraphs stretching over 16 pages, was published after the meeting took place, the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs only mentioned that “the Israeli statement emphasizes that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and that Jerusalem is its eternal and undivided capital”.

In its position paper, the EU reiterated “its fundamental commitment to Israel’s security”, including with regard to threats in the region, and strongly condemned the indiscriminate launching of rockets by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups into Israel.

That said, EU continues to be “gravely concerned that the occupation of the Palestinian territory that began in 1967 continues to this day and considers that it remains of utmost importance to restore a political horizon towards a two-state solution”. It calls on Israel to change course in dealing with Gaza and the situation in the West Bank.

On the two-state issue, the EU reaffirmed its long-standing position. “The EU is united in its commitment to achieving a two-state solution … that allows the State of Israel to live side by side in peace, security and mutual recognition with an independent, democratic, contiguous, sovereign and viable State of Palestine, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.”

The EU and Israel are still divided on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but when it comes to bilateral cooperation the position paper includes a long list of areas where the EU welcomes further cooperation with Israel and a “broad bilateral partnership through comprehensive political dialogue and cooperation to unlock the full potential of EU-Israel relations”.

In the current energy crisis, when the EU needs to diversify its energy supply, it looks among others forward to strengthening its partnership with Israel on energy. The cooperation between Israel and the EU was reinforced by the recent trilateral agreement on cooperation on the export of natural gas to the EU, signed with Israel and Egypt.

In this regard, the EU welcomed the resumption of discussions between Lebanon and Israel on the delineation of their maritime boundary to solve a long-running dispute on gas fields. Opposition leader Netanyahu has already denounced the draft treaty on the maritime border with Lebanon and threatens to cancel it if he becomes Prime Minister again.

The position paper recalled also the Council 2013 proposal of an “unprecedented package of political, economic and security support to be offered to and developed with both parties in the context of a final status agreement” but underlined that the future development of relations will also depend on Israeli and Palestinian engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.

The EU welcomes the normalisation of relations between Israel and a number of Arab states in the region (the Abraham Accords). High Representative Josep Borrell underlined that it is not enough.  “You need also to have peace with the Palestinians,” he said before the meeting. “Certainly, we disagree but it is more useful to talk about the situation.”

“Israel wants peace that will lead to security, not peace that will destabilize the Middle East,” Yair Lapid said. A two-state solution would put an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories but the longer the occupation continues, the more unlikely is the solution. On the other hand, a one-state solution is even less realistic and would not meet the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.

According to Professor Efraim Inbar, President of Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, the idea that a Jewish and a Palestinian state will coexist peacefully is widespread but ignores the reality on the ground.

“The Palestinian Arab and the Zionist national movements are not close to reaching a historic compromise, and the Palestinians have proven themselves unable to build a state,” he wrote in an op-ed in Jerusalem Post on Monday.

A majority of Israelis used to believe in the two-state solution but not any longer. Recent polls indicate that only a third of Jewish Israelis support it. “With intermittent Palestinian terrorism from the West Bank from 2000 and Gaza becoming a launching pad for thousands of missiles aimed at Israeli civilians after 2007, most Israelis stopped believing that the Palestinians are a partner for peace.”

“Nowadays, cooperation between democracies is more crucial than ever," Josep Borrell underlined. The EU and Israel will likely develop their relations as outlined in the position paper while noting their political differences if there is no progress in the peace process.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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