'It is normal that the parliamentarians are concerned'

EU foreign policy head defends parliamentary debate on Israel as tough love

Josep Borrell says session to discuss judicial overhaul, West Bank policies a show of appreciation for Israeli democracy, as foreign minister demands end to interference

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference in Brussels on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference in Brussels on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell pushed back on accusations that the bloc was meddling in Israel’s internal affairs, saying Tuesday that Jerusalem should welcome an EU parliamentary debate on policies in the West Bank and the judicial overhaul being pushed through the Knesset.

Borrell’s comments came at the start of a session titled “Deterioration of democracy in Israel and consequences on the occupied territories,” an hour-long debate called for members of the European Parliament to examine the Israeli government’s push to place shackles on the judiciary, protests against the legislative drive, and Israeli actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

The debate, which featured strident criticism of Israel and calls to cut ties, was met with disapproval from Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who has spoken out repeatedly in recent days against European interference in Israeli domestic affairs.

“This cannot be seen as an interference but a way of showing our interest and our appreciation for the Israeli democracy,” Borrell said as he opened the session in the French city of Strasbourg.

Cohen spoke with Borrell earlier Tuesday, blasting him for allegedly drawing a comparison between Palestinian terror attacks and IDF operations.

Cohen also asked that the EU refrain from meddling in Israel’s internal political issues. In a press conference Monday night with Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Cohen asked his counterpart to work to prevent European involvement in Israel’s domestic matters and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his speech at the EU parliament, Borrell acknowledged that Cohen “was not very happy about this debate.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, right, and her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen, left, brief the media after a meeting at the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

“This parliament is free to discuss everything they consider important,” Borrell insisted. “And that is what I tried to explain to the Israeli minister [in a] very friendly [way]: ‘Look, it is normal that the parliamentarians are concerned for the growing spiral of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, and the need for all sides to de-escalate the situation.’”

Borrell stressed that the EU recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and would never compare IDF operations and terrorist attacks.

“I hope that today it will be a good discussion to show to Minister Cohen that the Parliament is ready to discuss what is happening in the Middle East,” he continued, “and how we can contribute to the peace process, and this is not at all to have an anti-Israeli position – not at all.”

On the fight over judicial reform, Borrell would not take a side, and would only express some hope that a compromise would be found.

Police scuffle with protesters during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

He did, however, make his position on the situation in the West Bank clear: “Settlements are illegal under international law and their expansion must stop, as well as demolitions and evictions of Palestinians from their homes. The Israeli government must seriously counter the violence of settler extremists and hold perpetrators accountable.”

He added that IDF operations must be proportionate and in line with international law.

Borrell had some words of criticism for the Palestinians as well, saying they must work to prevent terrorism against Israelis, and must reconcile to create one national authority.

The EU Parliament also held debates Tuesday on threats to civil society in Georgia and Moldova.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers speak with Israeli settlers in the West Bank town of Huwara near Nablus on February 27, 2023. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

The Foreign Ministry’s bid to head off European criticism was panned by opposition leader Yair Lapid, who cited reports that Israeli diplomats in Europe had been sent talking points of a partisan nature ahead of the European Parliament debate.

“Every attempt by the Foreign Ministry to run a political campaign outside Israel’s borders is a serious strike at the Foreign Ministry’s role and a total violation of the diplomatic rules, which will cause Israel significant diplomatic damage,” tweeted Lapid.

He added that it is “a gross and overt violation of the rules and even of the separation of powers.”

The Walla news site reported that Assaf Moran, the ministry’s department chief for Multilateral European Organizations and NATO, sent a letter to Israel’s envoys in EU countries with talking points to share with friendly parliamentarians ahead of the debate, saying that the November elections “express a clear decision by the Israeli public about the identity of the government and its agenda.”

The message also argued that the legislative process for the overhaul is far from over, “and it is better to allow it to play out without external interference.”

This is despite many of the relevant bills nearing their final votes, which could be held as early as next week.

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