Actions could include penalties on trade, cooperation

EU ministers expected to weigh punitive response to West Bank annexation

Reportedly led by France, European nations seek to warn Israel of sanctions from its largest trading partner if it declares sovereignty over parts of territory

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks in Aachen, Germany, Jan. 22, 2019. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images via JTA)
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks in Aachen, Germany, Jan. 22, 2019. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images via JTA)

European Union foreign ministers will meet in Brussels Friday, a day after the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, to consider punitive responses to Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, multiple reports have indicated.

Several European nations led by France, and including Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg, have reportedly expressed support for threats of punitive action in a bid to deter the new Israeli government from carrying out the move with a green light from Washington.

The EU bloc is Israel’s largest trading partner, grants Israel favored trading status, and helps fund Israeli scientific research and development through its massive Horizon 2020 program.

According to the Haaretz daily, the proposed steps include announcing that Israel would be prevented from entering into trade agreements with the bloc, receiving EU grants or participating in other forms of cooperation with the union.

It is not clear if the steps would apply to future agreement or freeze existing ones.

In this February 18, 2020 photo, a view of the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

As part of their coalition agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chief Benny Gantz agreed that the government that is due to be sworn in Thursday can begin moving forward with applying Israeli sovereignty to settlements and the Jordan Valley after July 1, a move expected to enjoy backing from a majority of lawmakers in the current Knesset.

Though Gantz is believed to oppose unilateral action, he acquiesced to Netanyahu’s demand to allow the matter to be brought to a vote in parliament.

“There is clearly a need to look at what annexation means in the context of international law and we do need to know our options,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters.

“We also need to say what exactly the consequences of annexation would be, ideally as a way to stop any such move,” the diplomat said.

On Monday, European External Action Service spokesman Peter Stano said any EU decision on future sanctions would depend on the results of Friday’s deliberations.

“Annexation is contrary to international law and if annexation goes ahead, the EU will act accordingly,” he said, according to Reuters.

And in February, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said annexation “could not pass unchallenged.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell listens during a press conference after a meeting in Belgrade, Serbia, January 31, 2020. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

The foreign ministers are unlikely to issue any decision on Friday. The Commission and the External Action Service, the EU’s executive and foreign service branches, have yet to propose specific options for member states to consider.

Also key to the discussions will be finding potential punitive measures that would not require the unanimous agreement of all 27 bloc members, as Israel’s allies, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, would likely veto any proposals that require unanimity.

“No one wants to reach the point that Israel’s relations with the union are harmed for the long term, but that’s what will happen if Israel annexes, if only because of the precedent an annexation would set for every other place” where nations are fighting over disputed land, an EU source was quoted by Haaretz as saying.

Annexation of settlements and the Jordan Valley has been a key campaign promise of Netanyahu and his Likud party in recent elections. A plurality of slightly fewer than half of Israelis back the idea, and fewer than a third think the government will actually go through with it, according to a survey of Israelis released Sunday.

Asked whether they back annexation in the near future, 44.7 percent of respondents to an Israel Democracy Institute survey said they support or strongly support the move. The poll found 31.8% oppose annexation, and 23.5% didn’t know or didn’t answer.

An Israeli flag is seen in the E1 area of the West Bank on January 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A slight majority of Jews — 51.7% — support annexation, the poll found, while only 8.8% of Arab Israelis were in favor. Among Jews, 27.9% opposed annexation, and 20.4% didn’t know or didn’t answer. Among Arabs, 51.9% were opposed, and 39.4% didn’t know or didn’t answer.

Support for annexation among Jews was unsurprisingly divided along partisan lines, with 71% of self-defined right-wing Jews backing it, 31% of centrists and only 8% of left-wingers.

Overall, 31.8% of Israelis think the government will actually push ahead with annexation in the coming year.

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