ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 150

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Inside story

EU’s Borrell wins over foreign minister during long one-on-one chat

Member of Eli Cohen’s team says Europe’s foreign policy chief repeatedly condemned Palestinian attacks, resulting in an invite to Israel and a new page in ties

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, left, with EU counterpart Josep Borrell in Brussels, Belgium, on May 2, 2023. (Johanna Géron/Israel Embassy Brussels)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, left, with EU counterpart Josep Borrell in Brussels, Belgium, on May 2, 2023. (Johanna Géron/Israel Embassy Brussels)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his staff expected a short and not particularly warm meeting in Brussels on Tuesday with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

The last time they spoke, they held a tense phone call in March during which Cohen condemned an article Borrell had published, accusing him of drawing a comparison between Palestinian terror attacks and IDF operations, and told the Spaniard that Israel would not lift a finger to welcome him if he wanted to make an official visit.

In that conversation, Cohen also blasted the EU for meddling in Israel’s domestic affairs like the judicial overhaul.

On a separate occasion he even publicly asked Italy’s foreign minister to prevent European involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, another swipe at recent Borrell statements.

But surprisingly, during their meeting this week Cohen did extend an invitation to Borrell to come to Israel.

So what changed?

It wasn’t Borrell’s approach. Only hours after the March phone call, he had signaled that he was eager to move beyond the fight with Israel’s top diplomat. Speaking in Strasbourg at an EU parliamentary debate titled “Deterioration of democracy in Israel and consequences on the occupied territories,” Borrell directly acknowledged Cohen’s displeasure, and explained that “this cannot be seen as an interference but a way of showing our interest and our appreciation for the Israeli democracy.”

Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, speaks with members of the European parliament March 14, 2023, in Strasbourg, France. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

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.”

Rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists toward Israel, in Gaza City, May 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

On the fight over judicial reform, Borrell would not take a side in his address, only expressing hope that a compromise would be found.

That March speech failed to move Cohen.

Expecting more problematic statements from Borrell, Cohen had scheduled a 15-minute tête-à-tête with the European foreign policy chief in Brussels. But Borrell’s statements and attitude during their private meeting had a marked effect on Cohen.

They spoke for 70 minutes, a member of Cohen’s entourage told The Times of Israel.

Borrell condemned rocket fire on Israel and Palestinian terrorism several times in their conversation, according to the Israeli diplomat.

In his public statement after their meeting as well, Borrell condemned recent rocket and terrorist attacks against Israel and reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself, while reminding Israel that “any response must be proportionate and in line with international law.

EU spokespeople would not comment on the meeting.

According to the Israeli official, Cohen also asked Borrell to issue an unequivocal condemnation of the Palestinian Authority’s payments to terrorists in Israeli prisons, and to call for new EU sanctions on Iran. “This is the right time to act against the Iranian nuclear program,” said Cohen.

Neither of these requests made it into Borrell’s statement.

Still, the two diplomats walked out of their long meeting smiling, both clearly pleased that they had reached a modus vivendi.

Cohen announced that he had invited Borrell to Israel. According to Cohen, the two agreed to hold the annual EU-Israel Association Council meeting between EU foreign ministers and Cohen in Jerusalem.

However, the EU readout – which came out simultaneously with the Israeli statement, in another sign of accord – only said that Borrell is “hoping for another meeting of the Association Council this year.”

The 27 EU member states still have to approve the Association Council meeting taking place, but since it happened last year, there is unlikely to be much pushback.

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