Foreign affairs council: Too early to turn a new page in EU-Israel relations?
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Foreign affairs council: Too early to turn a new page in EU-Israel relations?

Israel's foreign minister Yair Lapid (to the right), next to High Representative Josep Borrell, at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting, credit: EU

The council meeting yesterday dealt with a number of hot spots and conflicts in the world such as Lebanon, Ethiopia, Belarus and Afghanistan but at the centre was a roundtable with the Israeli minister of foreign affairs.

Compared with the situation in these countries, the Israel – Palestine conflict has deescalated since the Gaza war in May and might seem to be under control and require less attention by the EU foreign minister but the status quo in the conflict is unsustainable, even in the short term.

“We had a discussion over lunch with the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid,” said High Representative Josep Borrell at the following press conference on Monday evening (12 July). “You know that the EU and Israel share deep political, historical and cultural ties. We had a friendly, open and constructive exchange on our bilateral relations, but also on the situation in the region.”

The meeting allowed for an exchange of views between the EU and the new Israeli coalition government, the first meeting of its kind in many years in the Foreign Affairs Council. The previous Israeli government did not consider the EU as an honest broker in the conflict with the Palestinians and conducted a policy which has protracted the unsustainable status quo.

There was a chance for a fresh start and for strengthening bilateral relations, Borrell said, but these relations are “also conditioned to many issues in which we have differences”. As proof he mentioned the Association Agreement meetings that have been cancelled for several years and apparently will not be restart very soon for lack of a common EU position.

Anze Logar, the foreign minister of Slovenia, which chairs the EU Presidency, expressed support for EU-Israel strategic partnership and the EU-Israel Association Council.

Lapid, which represents Israel’s new coalition government as alternate prime-minister and foreign minister, might have hoped to turn the page in EU-Israeli relations as he said before his arrival, but admitted that it would take time and that the focus for the time being will have to be on economic cooperation and Israel’s participation in EU programmes such as Horizon Europe and Creative Europe.

Asked about the Association Agreement when leaving the Foreign Affairs Council meeting, he replied that a majority of EU’s foreign ministers wanted to find a way to restart the Association meetings as quickly as possible but that there was no consensus for it in the Council. He was still satisfied with the meeting. “We need now to ensure that there a follow-up as good as the beginning.”

He expressed support for a two-state solution but disappointed most EU member states by adding that the conditions currently are not ripe for a peace deal with the Palestinians, both because of internal disagreement in his government and the situation in the Palestinian camp.

The new Israeli government is a fragile coalition and to last its full four-year term it has to avoid ideological issues, focus on urgent domestic issues and not become hostage to provocations by the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“It is no secret that I support a two-state solution. Unfortunately, there is no current plan for this. However, there is one thing we all need to remember. If there is eventually a Palestinian state, it must be a peace-loving democracy. We cannot be asked to take part in the building of another threat to our lives,” Lapid said reportedly.

“What we need to do now is make sure that no steps are taken that will prevent the possibility of peace in the future, and we need to improve the lives of Palestinians. Whatever is humanitarian, I will be for it. Everything that builds the Palestinian economy, I’m for it.”

Borrell met Lapid already on Sunday evening. According to a statement, they discussed how the dialogue with the Palestinians can be moved forward and the importance to enhance EU-Israel relations. They also considered how to address together existing challenges in order to achieve this common goal.

Key in any restart of the peace process would be confidence building measures by both sides, with encouragement and incentives offered by the EU. Such measures were discussed already in a report in 2016 by the Middle East Quartet which dealt with the situation on the ground and how to create conditions for a resumption of meaningful negotiations to achieve a two-state solution.

Unfortunately, not much happened since then to induce the two sides to restart negotiations on a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict. What exactly should be done now to move the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians forward? What needs to be done to turn a new page in EU-Israel relations after their deterioration during the previous government?

The two questions are related but both Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs and the European External Action Service (EEAS) declined to reply to requests for comments.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times