EU directive may make it harder for PM to rein in the right

Hawkish cabinet members say move to discourage projects over the Green Line demonstrates futility of Israeli efforts to resume peace talks

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the wake of new European Union rules conditioning cooperation with Israel on Israel’s acknowledgement that it does not have rights to any lands it holds beyond the Green Line, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may find it more difficult to keep the most right-wing elements of his coalition committed to the government’s pursuit of the negotiations track.

The EU decision’s impact on the right and on the Palestinians has senior government officials worried. In a meeting Wednesday with EU peace envoy Andreas Reinicke, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is responsible for coordinating the government’s negotiations efforts with the Palestinians, urged the EU to freeze the directive.

“Under the current circumstances, when we are in the middle of contacts to reopen negotiations, it’s important that the Europeans allow Israel and the Palestinians to set their borders in negotiations rather than to establish them in unilateral decision from the [European] Union,” Livni told Reinicke. Refraining from the move would help jumpstart negotiations, rather than stall them, she added.

“My own view is that the negotiations are pointless,” Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) told The Times of Israel. “But I’m a member of a government, and have committed to not do anything that will harm the negotiations. I’ve upheld that commitment.”

Now it was the Europeans who are torpedoing those talks, Bennett said. “The Palestinians are saying, why should I go to negotiations,” since their refusal to do so will effectively ratchet up pressure on Israel.

“The EU is taking a unilateral step on Israel,” Bennett added. “If it goes down the unilateral path, it will be completely disconnected from the process. It has removed itself from the process.”

“Until today, on the right flank of the coalition and cabinet, there was a willingness to take the path [offered by US Secretary of State John Kerry] to enable the prime minister to make goodwill concessions toward the Palestinians,” noted Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud). “The argument was that we need to take these measures to make sure international pressure wouldn’t come down on us,” but rather would be on the Palestinians to reenter peace talks.

“If there will be this sort of pressure on us regardless, and the Europeans are going to go down this road that they’ve chosen, there’s no reason for us to offer any concessions to the Palestinians,” he said.

Some ministers, including Elkin and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, suggested the European Union did not clearly understand what it was doing, and that the new directive could cause cause accidental damage to negotiations.

“They just don’t know the material,” charged Ariel. Standing in the David’s Citadel fortress in Jerusalem’s Old City Wednesday night before a speech to the Maccabiah sports competition gala event, he pointed to the surrounding medieval walls and noted, “for the Europeans, the problem is here, right here,” and not merely in far-flung settlements in the West Bank.

“It’s inconceivable that the same people who can’t define Hezbollah as a terror group — that even after we say we’re ready for negotiations, they drop this bombshell,” Ariel added.

“We’re talking to the Europeans in an attempt to tell them this is a very, very dramatic change in the rules of the game,” Elkin said. “The Europeans can decide where to put their money. That’s their right. But now the Europeans are going to do something they haven’t done before: They’re trying to tell us where Israeli money will go. But the State of Israel can’t be told where to put its money.”

That’s no mere political rhetoric, he said. “It can’t do it from a legal perspective. [The State of Israel] can’t tell the Hebrew University, which is in sovereign Israeli territory, that it can’t apply for a joint grant while Tel Aviv University can. That’s a completely impossible situation.”

Reached for comment on the concerns, an EU official in Israel reiterated the EU’s attempts in recent days to calm the political firestorm that the decision has caused in Israel.

“This has been the situation for years,” the official said. “I’m always surprised at how surprised Israelis are to discover that the international community does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

Was there concern that the timing of the decision could push the Israeli right and the Palestinians further from the negotiating table?

“You’ll have to speak to the Palestinians about how they see the decision. And you’ll have to speak to Israel about how it sees the decision.”

According to Elkin, the most immediate, and probably most dramatic fallout from the decision could be Israel’s participation in the €80 billion Horizon 2020 research program, to which Israel is set to contribute some €600 million over the coming six years.

“The practical significance of what’s happening is that the Europeans are telling us there won’t be cooperation in research and development,” he said.

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