Meeting in Brussels opens new page in EU-Israel relations amid constitutional crisis

Meeting in Brussels opens new page in EU-Israel relations amid constitutional crisis
EU High Representative Josep Borrell and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Brussels, 2 May 2023, credit: Johanna Géron/Israel’s Representation to the EU

The meeting in Brussels on Tuesday between EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell and Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen did not result in any joint statement but might have eased their strained relations and paved the way for next EU-Israel Association Council meeting.

The meeting was their first in-person encounter and the first high-level meeting between the two sides since a new government with far-right parties came to power in Israel with plans for a judicial reform which would undermine the independence of Israel’s supreme court and the system of checks and balances.

As previously reported, Borrell has avoided to enter the internal and still on-going debate in Israel on the judicial reform. He managed to find some common ground with critical MEPs at a plenary debate in the European Parliament on the proposed judicial reform and its implications for EU-Israel relations and the Middle East peace process.

In his statements on behalf of the EU he usually denounces unilateral measures and the violence by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The violence derails the already dormant peace process and might escalate to full war as recent incidents have shown. This was not to the liking of the new Israeli government and there were even rumors in media that Borrell was not welcome for an official visit in Israel.

According to the statement which he issued after the meeting the two sides discussed the bilateral relations between the EU and Israel as well as regional issues. Among others Borrell recalled that cooperation between the EU and Israel is very strong and that the EU is keen on deepening this relationship further, hoping for another meeting of the EU- Israel Association Council this year.

The previous meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council took place in Brussels last October before the Israeli elections, after a suspension of ten years during which no political dialogue between the two parties was possible. At that meeting, the EU presented a detailed common position paper which is unlikely to be accepted by the current Israeli government.

In the statement, HR Borrell condemned recent terrorist and rocket attacks against Israelis, and underlined the EU’s commitment to Israel’s right to defend itself.  He recalled that any response must be proportionate and in line with international law.

In the latest two incidents, triggered by violence at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the death of a hunger-striking Palestinian prisoner, the Israeli response no doubt complied with EU’s criteria.

At the same time, Borrell expressed concerns about the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The EU is seeking an open and constructive exchange with Israel on the Middle East Peace Process, according to the statement. “The EU and its Member States remain firmly committed to the two-state solution and the HRVP recalled the European readiness to contribute to a peace process.”

The EU also supports the normalisation agreements Israel has signed with a number of Arab countries (the Abraham Accords) and stands ready to explore further initiatives.

The Israeli ministry of foreign affairs issued a press release where it described the meeting as the opening of a new page in EU-Israel relations. The press release called on Borrell to condemn the payment of salaries by the Palestinian Authority to terrorists and their families and the incitement to terrorism.

Iran’s nuclear programme is an existential threat to Israel and the Israeli foreign minister also called on the EU to impose further sanctions on Iran – a call which might be accepted by the EU in view of Iran’s military cooperation with Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine.

“Now is the time to act to stop the Iranian nuclear plan,” Cohen twitted. Iran is reported to have enriched enough uranium for five nuclear bombs and has become a nuclear threshold country close to making a nuclear weapon.

While Borrell and Cohen might have talked past each other at their meeting, Borrell accepted an invitation to visit Israel which will be his first visit in Israel as High Representative. His spokesperson told The Brussels Times that the date will be worked out later by both sides “identifying the best date that fits their very demanding and packed agendas”.

The Israeli foreign minister expects that next EU-Association Council meeting will take place this year in Jerusalem.  Asked at the Commission’s press conference today (5 May) if this was likely to happen, Peter Stano, the spokesperson, did not exclude that the meeting could take place in Jerusalem but explained that the date, place and agenda need to be agreed by both sides, incl. all EU member states.

The issue of the proposed judicial reform in Israel was not mentioned the EU statement. According to a recent commentary published by the European Policy Centre (EPC), EU support is crucial for Israel’s liberal democracy and could send a message around the world, incl. EU’s own member states, that democratic backsliding must and can be stopped.

The impact of the proposed reform on Israel’s international standing has been discussed in the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs but the Israeli government is in a denial mode. The foreign minister is reported to have issued a statement on Thursday rejecting an internal report warning about the negative impact on Israel’s foreign relations.

“Nowadays, cooperation between democracies is more crucial than ever," Josep Borrell underlined last October. Judging by the outcome of the meeting this week, the EU and Israel are likely to continue developing their economic and other relations as outlined in the EU position paper while noting their political differences in the absence of any progress in the peace process.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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