EU okays landmark Israel ‘Open Skies’ aviation deal, despite annexation tensions

EU okays landmark Israel ‘Open Skies’ aviation deal, despite annexation tensions

Jerusalem hails diplomatic achievement as Brussels ratifies pact with large majority; left-wingers’ bid for delay rejected; EU to watch political developments, ‘act accordingly’

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

A Ryanair Boeing 737 airliner seen at Ramon Airport near Eilat, March 4, 2019. (Rafi Peled/ Israel Airport Authority)
A Ryanair Boeing 737 airliner seen at Ramon Airport near Eilat, March 4, 2019. (Rafi Peled/ Israel Airport Authority)

The European Parliament on Wednesday evening ratified a major aviation agreement with Israel. The Open Skies agreement is seen as a major boost for the Israeli economy, since it reduces airfares and promotes the creation of additional routes.

Jerusalem hailed the vote on the deal, which concluded a seven-year process, as a major diplomatic achievement.

At the same time, the European Union on Thursday indicated that the vote should not be seen as prejudging its response to a possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. It vowed to “closely monitor the situation and its broader implications, and act accordingly.”

The European Parliament voted in favor of the EU-Israel Euro-Mediterranean Aviation Agreement with a large majority: 437-102, with 147 abstentions.

Several left-wing factions had tried to postpone the vote until after Israel’s apparently imminent annexation move, but their motion was defeated in a preliminary technical vote and so the agreement moved to the EP plenary, where it was approved together with similar agreements with Jordan, China and Georgia.

“The final ratification of this agreement is an important expression of the relationship Israel has with the EU, particularly regarding trade, R&D and tourism,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said Thursday.

FM Gabi Ashkenazi at a joint press conference with German FM Heiko Maas, June 10, 2020 (MFA)

“The ratification of this agreement will contribute significantly to the rehabilitation of Israel’s tourism and aviation sectors. This is especially important now as Israel faces an economic crisis, caused by the coronavirus outbreak, and looks to restart flights and tourism.”

Negotiations between the European Commission and Israel over the new aviation agreement started 12 years ago. Israeli airline workers opposed the deal, but it was signed in 2013, under then-transportation minister Israel Katz, and immediately went into effect, pending its formal ratification.

In the following years it was ratified by the parliaments of all 27 member states. That stage of the process was concluded in May 2019, bringing the agreement for final ratification to the European Parliament.

Israeli airline workers burn tires outside the Prime Minister’s Office during a demonstration against the Open Skies agreement, on April 21, 2013 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The Open Skies agreement has led to a substantial decrease in air fares, alongside a significant increase in the number of tourists visiting Israel. It has also provided opportunities for Israeli tourists to fly to an increased variety of European destinations,” the Foreign Ministry said in statement Thursday.

“Yesterday’s final ratification guarantees the continuation of competition in the aviation sector and low airfares… This is a diplomatic achievement with significant economic impact on the State of Israel.”

Israel’s Ambassador to the EU Ronny Leshno-Yaar said the agreement demonstrated the “resilience” of the bilateral relationship.

Aharon Leshno-Yaar (Courtesy / Foreign Ministry)

“This is an enormous achievement of the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Israeli diplomats in EU countries,” he said. “The bottom line is: friendship won over enmity, and the recognition of the importance of the friendship with Israel overcame all other considerations.”

The EU on Thursday said that the agreement has in recent years brought “significant benefits for both sides, and particularly for EU air carriers,” but indicated that this week’s vote should not be misconstrued as tacit approval of Israel’s annexation plans.

The agreement includes a clause stressing that, “the application of this Agreement is understood to be without prejudice to the status of the territories that came under Israeli administration after June 1967,” a spokesperson for the EU mission in Ramat Gan told The Times of Israel.

The European Union will continue to closely monitor the situation and its broader implications, and act accordingly

The EU has also decided that the agreement “should be implemented in conformity with the Union’s position that the territories which came under Israeli administration in June 1967 are not part of the territory of the State of Israel,” she added.

“These provisions reflect the EU’s clear position on this topic, in line with international law and relevant UN Security Council resolutions: the EU does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied since 1967.”

Wednesday’s vote “does not prejudge the EU position on future political developments in Israel,” the spokesperson went on. “The European Union will continue to closely monitor the situation and its broader implications, and act accordingly.”

Still, several pro-Israel organizations hailed the successful conclusion of a seven-year process seen as very beneficial to Israel.

The vote “reflects the great importance of Israel’s ties with Europe,” ELNET, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening Europe-Israel relations, said in a statement. “EU-Israel aviation has expanded significantly since the provisional application for the agreement in 2013… We are confident that the EU-Israel aviation agreement will further enhance Europe’s ties with Israel.”

A Lufthansa airplane at Frankfurt Airport. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

“This aviation agreement between the EU and Israel benefits consumers, empowers job-creating businesses, and aligns environmental standards. It’s a good day for EU-Israel relations,” said Daniel Schwammenthal, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s EU office.

At the same time, he noted with concern that some left-wing lawmakers had sought to delay the vote in what was meant to be a warning to Jerusalem.

“Had they succeeded, it would have no doubt been viewed in Israel as a preemptive sanction and severely damaged the bilateral relationship,” he said. “Fortunately, a majority of lawmakers opted for constructive engagement with the new Israeli government instead of threats, and so both European and Israeli citizens ultimately won out.”

The EU is vehemently opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared plan to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and settlements throughout the West Bank, which it considers a serious violation of international law.

“We strongly urge Israel to refrain from any unilateral decision that would lead to the annexation of any occupied Palestinian territory,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Thursday in a speech to the European Parliament.

Such a move “would inevitably have significant consequences for the close relationship we currently enjoy with Israel,” he said,

While European officials say an Israeli annexation would “not go unchallenged,” Brussels has so far refrained from threatening specific sanctions. This is likely due to the fact that any significant punitive measure would require consensus among all 27 member states, and some countries, such as Hungary and Germany, are expected to veto harsh sanctions.

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