Prime Minister Yair Lapid and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell adopted contrasting tones in their remarks at the start of the long-frozen EU-Israel Association Council meeting in Brussels on Monday.
Lapid, speaking by videolink from Jerusalem, stressed what the two sides have in common, including “liberal and democratic values.”
“We are all united in our desire to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Lapid highlighted both Israeli and EU support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the need to “defend freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press around the world.”
Borrell, on the other hand, touched on areas of disagreement, particularly Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
“We will discuss frankly and openly about some specific issues which are of our mutual concern,” he said in regards to the council meeting, the first since July 2012. “I am talking about the situation in the Palestinian territories and the Middle East peace process which is stalled.”
The Spanish diplomat and economist added that the Europeans are concerned about “continued violence and tensions on the ground, and the continuation of unilateral measures such as the expansion of settlements.”
Israel’s draft statement on the meeting, which it circulated to the EU side, appeared set to elicit resistance. The document emphasizes Israel’s status as a Jewish democratic state with Jerusalem as its indivisible and eternal capital, according to Lapid’s office.
In his remarks, Lapid emphasized Israeli support for the Palestinian Authority and his backing of a two-state solution.
“We are working with them and helping their economy develop,” he said, before adding that “the Palestinians need to put an end to terrorism and incitement.”
“Israel wants peace that will lead to security, not peace that will destabilize the Middle East,” he continued.
He invited the EU to become part of the Negev Forum, the regional cooperation framework launched this summer in Sde Boker, while also touting the potential to expand cooperation on energy security, cost of living, research, and trade.
With Europe facing spiraling energy costs in the wake of the war in Ukraine, Israel is hoping that its natural gas will be part of the solution.
The premier did not make the trip, instead sending Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern to lead the Israeli delegation.
According to a statement released Monday afternoon by the Prime Minister’s Office, the specific goals of the meeting included accessing EU funds for Israeli companies; signing a cellular coverage agreement to reduce the cost of roaming charges; concluding an export agreement for Israeli organic produce; and a deal allowing Israel to adopt European food standards to reduce the cost of living.
“We want the resumption of a political process that can lead to a two-state solution and a comprehensive regional peace,” Borrell said in his remarks.
He also acknowledged that the two sides disagree on EU-mediated efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
“For the time being, in any case, those negotiations are stalled,” he added.
Efforts to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which curbed Iran’s enrichment activities in exchange for sanctions relief before the US withdrew from the deal in 2018, recently fell apart, with Israel calling the pact a “bad deal.”
Borrell did hit on several areas of concord.
“We need to work together to tackle global challenges, and recently, the brutal Russian aggression against Ukraine. Nowadays, cooperation between democracies is more crucial than ever,” he said.
“Today is a good occasion to show our determination to have a positive and fruitful relationship with Israel, pushing for peace.”
Borrell said Lapid’s support for a two-state solution during his address to the UN General Assembly last month was “very important.”
In his UN speech, Lapid called a two-state solution “the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy, and for the future of our children.”
Israel signed an Association Agreement that defined its relationship with the EU in 1995 and ratified it in 2000. The Association Council, a meeting to cover matters of mutual concern, is meant to occur annually between Israel and the EU.
Israel canceled the Council in 2013, when the EU angered Jerusalem by issuing new regulations according to which no Israeli body that operates or has links beyond the Green Line can receive EU funding or have any cooperation with the EU.
Lapid — during his recent stint as foreign minister — made it a goal to reconvene the forum.
A senior European official told The Times of Israel in July that Borrell had held off on reconvening the key forum in the wake of the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and the announcement of new housing over the Green Line in May.
“There were two things that were unacceptable in terms of diplomacy — the killing of the journalist, and the announcement of 4,000 new settlements,” said the official.
For a number of years, individual EU states prevented the meetings from taking place.
During Lapid’s meeting with his European Union counterparts in July 2021, most countries supported the idea of scheduling an Association Council meeting and strengthening the bilateral relationship in general, sources inside the room told The Times of Israel.
This summer, a multi-party group of 158 members of the European Parliament signed a letter calling on the EU leadership to resume the Association Council.
AFP contributed to this report.