EU envoy: Yes to R&D deal, no to canceling settlement ban

Israel could yet salvage role in potential $1.9b research program, new ambassador says, since it ‘recognizes Europe’s decision not to fund Israeli institutions in West Bank’

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

EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)

The EU’s top official in Tel Aviv said that since Jerusalem recognizes the European Union’s position not to fund Israeli institutions located beyond the pre-1967 lines, the two sides can still reach an agreement over Israel’s involvement in a multimillion-euro scientific cooperation agreement. According to Israeli officials, negotiations over Israel’s participation reached an impasse this week due to continued obstinacy on part of the Europeans.

“Our understanding is that the Israeli government has accepted the fundamental principle that the EU has a policy that says that we don’t want to use money in the settlements,” the EU’s ambassador-designate Lars Faaborg-Andersen told The Times of Israel. “And the Israeli government has formulated [its proposal] in a way that they don’t agree with that policy but accept that this is our policy. Given that, my assertion would be that once we agree on the principle, it should be possible to agree on how to implement this principle in practice. So I remain hopeful that a solution to this issue can be found.”

However, Faaborg-Andersen reiterated that Brussels will implement its controversial new guidelines, which bar Israeli institutions in the West Bank from receiving EU funding, as planned on January 1.

The current crisis, it appears, centers around the correct interpretation of these directives, which deny any kind of financial support for Israeli projects outside the country’s internationally recognized borders. Jerusalem fears that in its current phrasing, the cooperation agreement would be akin to an admission that territories beyond the Green Line are not part of the State of Israel.

Faaborg-Andersen’s comments come on the heels of reports that talks between the EU and Israel regarding Jerusalem’s participation in the Horizon 2020 research partnership program have so far resulted in a stalemate because of disagreements over the exact wording of these guidelines.

While there is no deadline to Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020, the program starts with the new year, and researchers can begin applying for funding next month, which is why Israelis consider December 1 the latest date by which a compromise should be found and an agreement signed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night instructed senior officials to continue negotiations with the EU over the exact phrasing of an agreement that would amend the guidelines and thus enable Israel to join Horizon 2020 without losing face. After a marathon session Monday night, Netanyahu asked Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to contact EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a bid to help solve the crisis. Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin said Tuesday that he still believes a compromise is possible but said Israel could not sign the agreement as it is currently proposed by the EU.

Published in July, the EU guidelines mandate a denial of European funding to, and cooperation with, Israeli institutions based or operating over the Green Line, and a requirement that all future agreements between Israel and the EU include a clause in which Israel accepts the position that none of the territory over the Green Line belongs to Israel.

Jerusalem rejects this so-called territorial clause and proposed an amended version of the guidelines that accepts the EU’s position on ineligibility of funding for settlements but would prevent Israel from explicitly endorsing such a standpoint, Israeli diplomatic sources told The Times of Israel. “The Europeans said they really want Israel to join Horizon 2020, but then they did not react to our proposal beyond offering some minor changes here and there,” an Israeli official said. “We can’t accept the agreement like this.”

Elkin: ‘It’s possible to get to the finish line. We will do everything in our power to get there’

If Israel were to participate in Horizon 2020, it would contribute about €500 million and could expect €1.4 billion (some $1.9 billion) in return over several years. Many in Israel’s scientific community fear a failure to reach an agreement could cause severe damage to the country’s international standing. “It’s an existential threat for academic research,” Hebrew University president Menachem Ben-Sasson told Army Radio on Tuesday.

“I really hope that we will get to an agreement,” Elkin said on the same radio program. “There is great flexibility on our part, a little bit of flexibility on part of the EU — it’s possible to get to the finish line. We will do everything in our power to get there.”

Israel made a difficult concession when it accepted the EU’s position not to fund any projects over the Green Line, but there are other problematic clauses Israel could not possibly accept, the deputy foreign minister said. Lamenting the Europeans’ “stubbornness to change even one iota,” he claimed the guidelines assert Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is illegal. “We can’t accept this legal viewpoint,” he said, because any such admission would make the country vulnerable to challenges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The EU’s current proposal also implies that any Israeli entity that operates beyond the 1967 lines, even if it is headquartered within the country’s internationally recognized borders, would be ineligible for funding, Elkin said.

However, senior EU officials insist that the guidelines do not require Israel to adapt the EU position on the settlements. They also affirmed that in determining eligibility for funding, only an entity’s place of establishment and the location of where the activity is carried out would be considered, in contrast to the Israeli understanding of the guidelines.

Faaborg-Andersen, who will present his letter of credence to President Shimon Peres and officially become the EU’s ambassador to Israel on December 18, said he could neither confirm nor deny press reports about a current stalemate in negotiations. “Technically, it’s possible to find a solution to this. What we hope is that there is also the political willingness on the Israeli side to back those solutions.”

EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen, left, with Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen, left, with Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)

“All I can say is that there are sound technical solutions to the various issues that have been raised. Whether they will be acceptable politically, I don’t know,” he said. “What remains clear, however, is that there will be an implementation of the guidelines. That remains our clear position.”

However, the guidelines will not “affect anyone in any significant degree here in Israel,” he emphasized.

“There is nothing really in the guidelines that should surprise anyone,” Faaborg-Andersen said. “Our position on the settlement issue is very well known. The guidelines are actually only qualifying what has already been existing EU practice when it comes to settlements, and that is that we don’t intend to spend any EU money in settlements. That has hitherto not happened to any great extent at all, but there had been a few cases where money has been spent in entities located in settlements. And there is a very strong wish on part of the European ministers of foreign affairs and the European parliament to ensure that holes like this are blocked so this won’t happen again.”

‘We’re not just being uncritical of the Palestinian side’

Speaking to The Times of Israel in Jerusalem, Faaborg-Andersen also addressed accusations the EU has a double standard when it comes to Israel. Critics often point out that the union refuses to fund Israeli projects in the West Bank but happily supports similar programs in other parts of the world considered occupied territories, such as in Western Sahara (occupied by Morocco) or Northern Cyprus (occupied by Turkey).

“The EU should also ask itself whether Israel is receiving equal and fair treatment like all other states,” Elkin said earlier this month, in Faaborg-Andersen’s presence, at a Knesset session dedicated to European-Israeli relations. There is a “lack of equality given to the conflict here compared with other conflicts in the world,” the deputy foreign minister lamented. The EU “allows itself to invest in Cyprus, a region of conflict, but asks us not to invest any money in Judea and Samaria,” he said, referring to the West Bank.

Faaborg-Andersen, originally a Danish diplomat, said that while such criticism has never come up in his discussions with Israeli officials, if it did he would reject it by pointing to the uniqueness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Northern Cyprus, for instance, cannot be compared to the West Bank since it is a “totally different situation because the area is not occupied by Turkey,” he said.

“There is no legal parallel to the situation of the occupied territories and any other situation, be it Northern Cyprus or Western Sahara,” the veteran diplomat asserted. “The only parallel that exists, according to the lawyers in Brussels, is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” he added, referring to a region at the heart of a territorial feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU just concluded an agreement with Armenia, which occupies Nagorno-Karabakh, and made sure to specify that the disputed enclave was excluded, he noted.

A soft-spoken, white-haired man who humbly refers to himself as a “bureaucrat,” Faaborg-Andersen has ample experience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2002, when he headed the Danish Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department, he co-authored the first version of the so-called “Road Map,” which was later adopted by the international community as a blueprint leading to a final-status agreement.

He rejected often-made claims that the EU is hostile to Israel and unfairly biased in favor of the Palestinians. “It is very important to point out that we’re not just handing over checks or being uncritical of what’s going on the Palestinian side,” he said. “I can tell you that, as we speak, there’s a high-level delegation from Brussels in Ramallah to discuss a host of issues of concern to us.”

For example, EU diplomats worry about human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and good governance in the Palestinian Authority, he said. Brussels also vocally opposes anti-Israel rhetoric. “We’re totally against incitement. It’s something that we raise with the Palestinians,” he stressed. However, “this is also something we raise with you because there’s also [anti-Palestinian] incitement taking place” in Israel, he said. “The difference, I think, is that in the PA they might enjoy more official backing, or at least there is less willingness to act forcefully against it.”

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