The foreign affairs council decided on Monday to reconvene the Association Council meetings with Israel after years of tense political relations.
The Association Council has not met since 2012. According to EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, a date for the first meeting has not been set yet and it is not likely to take place before the snap elections in Israel on 1 November. Anyway, the date will be decided in coordination with Israel and after EU and its member states have defined a common EU position.
The Association Council is the highest political body for discussing EU-Israel’s bilateral relations. It covers cooperation in a range of diplomatic, economic, cultural and technology policy areas besides the resumption of the peace process in the Middle East.
“The position of the EU has not changed with respect to the Middle East Peace Process,” he said at a press conference in Brussels (18 July).
“We continue with the same Council Conclusion of 2016 supporting the two-state solution. We know that the situation on the ground in the Palestinian territories is deteriorating, and I think – and the ministers agreed - that the Association Council would be a good occasion to engage with Israel about these issues.”
In all Association Councils, the European Union speaks with a single voice saying the same, Josep Borrell added. “I think it would be a good occasion to rethink about the Middle East Peace Process, and the role and the position of the European Union with respect to it. As soon as we have a common position, we will try to agree with the Israeli side for a date, not before.”
Why is there a need to determine an EU common position if it has not changed and is based on the two-state solution?
EU’s lead spokesperson for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, told The Brussels Times that the EU-Israel Association Council does not only deal with the peace process. The EU member states agreed that Israel is an important partner to the EU. But it is common policy when it comes to Association and other Cooperation Councils with third countries that every step before a meeting, including the date and agenda, must be decided in unanimity by all member states.
The fact that all member states agreed on reconvening the Association Council was welcomed by Israel and can be seen as a sign that EU wants to turn a page in its relations with Israel, in particular following European Commission president von der Leyen’s visit to Israel in June aiming at taking EU-Israeli relations forward, in particular on import of Israeli natural gas and scientific cooperation fighting climate change.
“The convening of the Association Council will enable Israel to continue to develop its relations with the EU to the benefit of Israel’s citizens,” commented Israel’s acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid. “The fact that 27 EU Foreign Ministers have voted unanimously in favor of strengthening economic and diplomatic ties with Israel is proof of Israel’s diplomatic strength and this government’s ability to create new opportunities with the international community.”
The Palestinian issue, however, will not disappear and High Representative Josep Borrell referred to the deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories and the need to engage with Israel about the situation. Lapid himself might be in favor of a two-state solution but there is hardly a majority in any possible Israeli government for political initiatives to solve the stalemate in the peace process.
Joint US-Israeli declaration
This was also obvious during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last week. The visit disappointed the Palestinians but demonstrated the friendship and close relations between the US and Israel and culminated in a joint declaration - the “Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration.”
Among others, the two countries expressed enthusiasm to move forward the U.S.-Israel defense partnership through cooperation in cutting-edge defense technologies such as “high energy laser weapons systems to defend the skies of Israel and in the future those of other U.S. and Israel security partners”.
On the Palestinian issue, President Biden reaffirmed “his longstanding and consistent support of a two-state solution and for advancing toward a reality in which Israelis and Palestinians alike can enjoy equal measures of security, freedom and prosperity”, similar to the EU position. The United States stands ready to work with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and regional stakeholders toward that goal.
During the visit, Biden was among others shown an exhibition of Israel’s air and missile defense systems, met Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, held working meetings with the participation of both countries’ teams, and participated in a virtual meeting with Lapid and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and India (I2U2) on strengthening cooperation between the four countries on food security and solar and wind energy storage.
It is probably no coincidence that the EU decided to reconvene the Association Council with Israel directly after Biden’s visit. Many of the issues discussed during Biden’s visit to Israel concern also the EU, such as the peace process, financial support to the Palestinian Authority, the shortage of fossil fuels and rising energy prices, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the Abraham Accords and Israel’s integration in the region.
Iranian issue the most important
Professor Efraim Inbar, President of Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Brussels Times that the Iran issue was the most important issue during the visit. Biden repeated the US commitment “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome”.
But he failed to explain US red lines on the on-going Iranian progress in becoming a nuclear threshold state or how long time it will wait for the nuclear talks – with the EU and High Representative Borrell in a coordinating roll – to resume. In the meantime, Iran is not only continuing to destabilize the Middle East but might also sell advanced drones to Russia to support its war in Ukraine.
From Israel, President Biden continued to a summit in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where human rights issues overshadowed the visit. Israel had hoped that the visit would result in an announcement of a new security architecture and defense alliance of moderate countries against Iran but nothing was agreed formally. Nor did Saudi Arabia agree to increase oil production as the Americans wanted.
Biden also failed to mediate a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis conditioned normalization on progress in the peace process with the Palestinians. It did not help that Biden declared that the US supports a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps. On a positive note, the Saudi aviation authorities announced that they will be opening Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines.
The Brussels Times