EU says Israelis overreacting to anti-settlement measures

Foreign Ministry rejects claims it mishandled new directive targeting West Bank institutions; Livni: Our policies are ‘colonialist’

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of an Israeli settlement (CC BY-Trocaire, Flickr)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli settlement (CC BY-Trocaire, Flickr)

A senior European Union representative in Israel on Wednesday sought to downplay the significance of new measures that target Israeli institutions in the West Bank.

“If people knew what it was really about, they would be much less upset,” Sandra De Waele, EU first counsellor, told The Times of Israel, stressing that the regulations did not apply to trade agreements or the marketing of products from the West Bank

De Waele clarified that the directive offers guidelines that apply to grants, awards, and prizes funded by the European Union itself, and not to funding from individual member states. In addition, she pointed out, the guidelines merely reiterate what has been EU policy for years.

“It’s about putting the rules of the game in writing,” she said, and noted that the document was drawn up by EU clerks and not voted on at the ministerial level.

In a four-page document, the EU details the full conditions under which further cooperation with Israeli entities can continue. The document is due to be released Friday and was drafted by the European Commission.

The EU makes clear in the document that it “does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over any of the territories… and does not consider them to be part of Israel’s territory, irrespective of their legal status under domestic Israeli law.”

The guidelines also state that “only Israeli entities having their place of establishment within Israel’s pre-1967 borders will be considered eligible.”

De Waele confirmed that Israeli officials were aware of the document before its existence was revealed publicly on Tuesday, but would not comment on exactly when the Foreign Ministry was first informed of it. She also said she doubted that the matter had come up in a conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton when the two met last month, as she said it was too minor an issue.

“I would be surprised if it was discussed at that level,” she said.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu lambasted the EU, saying, “We will not accept any foreign dictates about our borders. This matter will only be determined through direct negotiation between the [two] sides” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry rejected reports that it had first been informed last December of the forthcoming European Union directive but failed to do anything about the new regulations. According to reports in the Hebrew press, despite the fact that the Israeli Embassy to the EU in Brussels learned of the proposed regulations several months ago, the details were only received in Jerusalem on Sunday and brought before the government on Monday.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman told The Times of Israel that its Brussels office had only been given word of the initiative last week and called accusations that it had mishandled the directive “ridiculous.”

Deputy Foreign Ministry Ze’ev Elkin acknowledged Wednesday that the new directive had caught his ministry by surprise. “The real question we have to ask ourselves is how we didn’t get wind [of the measures] in the preparation stage; after all, it takes more than a day to put such a document together,” he told Army Radio.

Elkin noted that as the most senior figure in the Foreign Ministry, he was the proper target for any criticism regarding the matter, rather than Israel’s ambassador to the EU.

The Foreign Ministry has been operating without an appointed minister since last December when then foreign minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) resigned his position in the wake of an indictment on breach of trust charges. Netanyahu agreed to reserve the position for Liberman to take up again should he be acquitted.

The European Union’s decision to stop all financial interaction with Israeli enterprises in the West Bank is an attempt to put pressure on Israel that the government can’t afford to ignore, Justice Minister Tzipi Livini (Hatnua) warned Wednesday.

“It’s a wake -up call,” Livni told Army Radio. “We can easily get to a point where we are isolated by Europe.”

Livni, who is charged with overseeing negotiations with the Palestinians, said the new directives from the EU show that things are not as well with Europe as many seem to believe.

“It’s a bad decision for Israel, and we need to learn the lessons,” she said. “The best way to preserve the interests of Israel is to engage in negotiations” with the Palestinians.

Livni asserted that the EU decision was brought on by frustration over Israel’s apparently contradictory policies regarding negotiations and settlement construction.

“It’s very difficult for Israel to explain that we want two states for two peoples and at the same time to continue building settlements,” she said. Livini noted that no country in the world, including the United States, supported Israeli settlements over the 1967 lines, and that according to the Europeans, continued settlement represents “a colonialist point of view.”

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