After 5-year hiatus, EU and Israel reconvene high-level forum

EU-Israel Association Council to meet in Brussels in late February; Jerusalem hails ‘extremely positive development’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, in Jerusalem, on November 7, 2014. (Photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL/FLASH90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, in Jerusalem, on November 7, 2014. (Photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL/FLASH90)

In a significant sign of warming ties, Israel and the European Union are set to reconvene the EU-Israel Association Council in late February, the two sides confirmed Tuesday.

The last such meeting of the bilateral ministerial-level forum took place in 2012.

“This is an extremely positive development, which will enable Israel and the EU to deepen their relations on a wide array of issues,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

At the talks, to be held on February 28 in Brussels, the EU will be represented by its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi will represent the Israeli side.

EU-Israel ties have been tense for years, with Jerusalem insisting the union is biased in favor of the Palestinians. The EU supported United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which harshly criticized the settlements, as well as the Paris peace conference earlier this month that Israel rejected as counterproductive.

Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attacked the EU for what he called an “over-involvement” in Middle East issues.

“Whoever wants to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should first forget it. The over-involvement of world powers, especially Europe, is only disrupting. They don’t contribute anything to the problem’s solution, they only complicate things,” he said at a conference in Tel Aviv. The European states, the Defense Minister continued, do not have a proper understanding of the conflict, its roots or its development. “And they come here and force themselves [unto the conflict] without being asked.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at the annual international conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on January 24, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Liberman speaks at the annual international conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on January 24, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

A former foreign minister, Liberman said he met with many international leaders and asked them to list one example where international diplomacy succeeded in solving a longstanding conflict. He listed Cyprus, Kosovo, Bosnia, Transnistria, Ireland, Scotland, and other regions in Europe where territorial conflicts are ostensibly ongoing. Even beyond their own continent, the Europeans have failed to promote peace in other crises, be it in Africa, Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, Liberman charged. “And after all that they come to us and give us advice on how to make peace,” he said.

Europe is currently “looking for direction, falling apart,” Liberman said, citing also the UK’s decision last year to leave the EU. “After you succeed in one place you can come and teach us.”

High hopes

Those sentiments are not shared by everyone, however. There are high hopes for improved relations both in Jerusalem and Brussels.

“Quite a lot of good things are happening, often unseen by the naked eye, but they are there,” Nicholas Westcott, the director of the EU External Action Service’s North Africa and Middle East department, said last month during a visit in Tel Aviv. “We hope early next year to have an Association Council, which we haven’t had for a while, to look at a ministerial level how we can take the relationship forward.”

In addition, the EU “would like to develop something we call partnership priorities,” said Westcott, who is the second-most senior EU diplomat dealing with the Middle East, after Mogherini. The so-called partnership priorities are a new instrument regulating bilateral ties that emerged of the EU’s 2015 review of its neighborhood policy program.

EU-Israel cooperation is moving “in a relatively positive direction,” he said. “We are looking at areas where we can deepen cooperation within the existing framework and beginning to think about what the next generation of framework might be.”

The anticipated rapprochement does not entail a formal upgrade of ties. But several officials from both sides said Israel and the EU will improve bilateral relations in various ways. This is projected to happen despite remaining differences of opinion, such as the union’s vehement opposition to settlement expansion and Israeli demolitions of EU-funded structures in Area C of the West Bank.

Last major update in ties fell over Cast Lead

After the 11th and last meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council, held in July 2012 in Brussels, the union said it viewed the event as a “demonstration of the significance the EU attaches to its relations with the State of Israel.” The council meeting reiterated the “importance of further developing our broad bilateral partnership,” the EU said in a statement at the time.

But in July 2013, the EU angered Israel by issuing new regulations according to which no Israeli body that operates or has links beyond the Green Line can receive EU funding or have any cooperation with the EU.

Jerusalem replied by vowing not sign any further agreements with the European Union until the EU “clarifies” its new regulations. In the wake of the heated arguments over the so-called guidelines, no Association Council was held that year and in the following years.

EU-Israel relations took another hit in November 2015, when the union instructed its member states to label certain Israeli goods made outside the pre-1967 lines. Israeli officials fumed and, amid accusations of anti-Semitism, vowed to curtail bilateral ties.

“We have to reset our relationship with the EU,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in January. “There is a natural tendency in the EU establishment to single out Israel and treat it in ways that other countries are not being dealt with, and especially other democracies,” he said. “And I think it’s wrong. I think it should be corrected.”

‘We think that making progress on the peace process is important for overall regional stability’

However, after a meeting with Mogherini the following month, Netanyahu said he was ready to bury the hatchet.

“Israel and the European Union have agreed to put relations between us back on track,” he declared. Mogherini had assured him that the labeling was “non-binding” and does not reflect the EU’s position on Israel’s final borders, he added.

“Of course, this is not to say that there will not be friction. There are things that we do not agree on,” he said.

Indeed, the EU’s longstanding opposition to Israeli settlement expansions has been one of the key sources of tensions in the bilateral relationship, which are anchored in the EU-Israel Association Agreement from 2000.

In 2005, the two parties agreed upon a so-called Action Plan, an important bilateral agreement that sought to “gradually integrate Israel into European policies and programmes.”

In 2008, the two sides agreed to upgrade the Action Plan, but due to the break out of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza a few months later — and ongoing arguments over settlement buildings — Brussels froze these negotiations.

The current rapprochement between Israel and the EU is in its fragile early stages and does not entail plans for negotiations over a new Action Plan, officials from both sides stressed this week. However, the current Action Plan remains in force.

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