The European Union’s ambassador to Israel said Wednesday that the EU does not understand what exactly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means when he demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen also said that if Israel’s settlement policies wrecked the current US-led peace efforts, then Israel would be held responsible for the failure of the negotiations, and rightly so. “Naturally” and “logically,” he said, “the blame will be put squarely on Israel’s doorstep.”

Briefing reporters in Jerusalem, Faaborg-Andersen said of the “Jewish Israel” issue: “I don’t think we have any clear position on that because we’re not 100% sure what is meant by this concept of a Jewish state.”

He went on: “If, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said the other day, according to the press, it’s a state in which Jews and Arabs and Druze are living [together with full equal rights] — I think this is Israel as we know [it] now. So if you’re asking why we’re not supporting that [demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state], it’s mostly because… it’s not really clear what is meant.”

Asked by this reporter why the EU does not formulate an official position on an issue Netanyahu has declared to be a prerequisite to any peace agreement, he replied: “All I can say is that this is for the parties to discuss. And I’m not a party to these [Israeli-Palestinian peace] talks.”

Faaborg-Andersen appeared to suggest that as long as Israel doesn’t attempt to change the country’s current demographic makeup, with full civil rights to all its citizens regardless of their religion or ethnic background, a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was rather harmless. However, he refused to confirm this interpretation of his comments or offer further comment on this issue.

After the briefing, Faaborg-Andersen’s spokesperson clarified in a statement that, “The EU has not pronounced a position on the question of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state among other reasons because we’re not sure about the implications of this on other final status issues. Therefore, we think that this is an issue to be discussed between the parties.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly declared that he considers the Palestinians’ unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as the core root of the conflict. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have said they will never agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, with some officials saying this would disenfranchise Arab citizens of Israel and require the Palestinians to give up their national narrative and the demand for a “right of return” to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

“We’re not asking them to change their religion and they have full civic rights,” Netanyahu said this week in an interview with Canada’s CTV News, referring to Israel’s non-Jewish minority. “Arab citizens of Israel serve in the Knesset, our parliament, they serve in the government, they serve on the Supreme Court. It’s full civic equality. But what we say is that this state, with its flag, with its symbols, its national holidays and the ability to accept Jews from around the world — that’s the nation-state of the Jewish people, with full civic rights to those who are non-Jews.”

By contrast, President Shimon Peres has reportedly said that such a recognition is “unnecessary,” as have other senior government officials.

During Wednesday’s briefing, Faaborg-Andersen also firmly rejected the Israeli government’s assertion that the EU is hypocritical in that it criticizes Israel over settlement construction yet never takes Palestinians to task for incitement.

“I don’t see any basis for the allegation that we’re being one-sided and not being even-handed on this issue,” Faaborg-Andersen said, adding that the EU has consistently condemned rocket fire at Israel and other attacks on Israeli citizens and soldiers. “Any kind of action being taken that, in our view, undermine the talks is something that we’re critical of,” he said. “We’re passing on messages to both parties.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Faaborg-Andersen met with Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin in Jerusalem. During the meeting, Elkin complained about the EU’s “unfair and one-sided policy” vis-à-vis Israel, according to his spokesperson. “We’re condemned for every announcement of [settlement] building, but there are no condemnations issued over the rocket fire from Gaza and the escalation in the region,” Elkin told Faaborg-Andersen.

Last week, after Israeli ambassadors in several European capitals, including London, Rome and Paris, were called in by their host countries to hear complaints over Israel’s settlement plans, Netanyahu launched an even more bitter attack against the EU.

Netanyahu said the move was hypocritical. “The European Union called in our ambassadors in the EU because of the construction of a few houses? When did the EU call in the Palestinian ambassadors to complain about the incitement that calls for Israel’s destruction? When do the Palestinian ambassadors get called in to hear complaints about the fact that security officers in the Palestinian security forces are participating in terrorist attacks against innocent Israelis?”

Last week, the Housing Ministry announced plans to build 1,400 new homes over the Green Line.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, January 15, 2014.  (photo credit: Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, January 15, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

It is time to “stop this hypocrisy,” Netanyahu said. “I think it’s time to inject some balance and fairness into this discussion. I think this imbalance and this bias against Israel doesn’t advance peace. I think it pushes peace further away because it tells the Palestinians you can basically do anything you want, say anything you want, incite any way you want, and you won’t be held accountable.”

If talks fail, ‘blame will be put squarely on Israel’s doorstep’

On Wednesday, Faaborg-Andersen also reiterated his assessment that Israel would be blamed for the failure of the current US-brokered peace effort if the talks collapsed because of Israeli plans to build additional housing units beyond the 1967 lines.

“If the talks are wrecked as a result of an Israeli settlement announcement, then the blame will be put squarely on Israel’s doorstep,” the EU envoy said. Settlements undermine trust in a negotiated settlement, as Israel is eating the cake while discussing how it should be divided, he said. If Israel’s actions result in the talks’ breakdown, “naturally and logically [Israel] will be to blame,” he said.

If Israel continues to expand its presence beyond the Green Line, without a peace agreement being signed, it “will find itself increasingly isolated,” he predicted. “Not necessarily because of any decisions taken at a government level but because of decisions taken by a myriad of private economic actors, be it companies, be it pension funds, be it consumers who will be choosing other product on the supermarket shelves.”

For now, the EU opposes a boycott of products from Jewish settlements, but several member states are already attaching special labels to such goods, and this policy might be adapted EU-wide in the future, Faaborg-Andersen said.

The tendency to want to label West Bank products is “gaining momentum every time there’s a settlement announcement here,” he added. “And that’s one of the reasons why we think these [additional building plans and their execution] are counterproductive, both for the negotiations but also because they don’t play in in a good way with the public and also the political class in Europe. I’m afraid that this is something that further fuels that debate.”