Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell met in Brussels on Tuesday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government sought to move past a period of strained relations with the EU.
While Brussels and Jerusalem enjoyed a brief stretch of improved ties under the previous unity government led by former prime ministers Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, relations soured after the establishment of Netanyahu’s new hardline coalition on December 29 due to more distinct differences on the Palestinian issue.
Cohen invited Borrell, a Spanish diplomat, 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.
Borrell also 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.”
Borrell, seen by Israel as one of the more adversarial figures at the top of the EU institutions, stressed the EU’s call for Israel to stop “measures that could heighten the already high level of tension and jeopardize the very possibility of a future just and sustainable peace based on the two-state solution.”
He also stressed the importance of respecting the status quo in Jerusalem.
Cohen said that Israel was “opening a new page in its relations with the EU.”
He also demanded that Borrell issue a clear denunciation of the Palestinian Authority paying the salaries of terrorists, and called for renewed EU sanctions on Iran.
First in person encounter with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen @elicoh1.
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) May 2, 2023
In March, after Borrell published an article that Israel said equated Israeli victims of terror with terrorists killed by the IDF, Cohen condemned the comments in a tense phone call with Borrell, and indicated that it would not have been a good time for the EU diplomat to visit.
Also Tuesday, Cohen spoke with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola of Malta about Iranian attempts to target Jews and Israelis on European soil.
They also discussed the importance of the EU designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. In January, the EU parliament called on the EU’s European Council and member states to list the IRGC as a terrorist group and to ban all business with it.
“European countries understand today more than ever the danger from Iran, and see eye-to-eye with Israel regarding the need to confront terror that comes from and is funded by the Iranian regime,” Cohen said after the meeting with Metsola.
Earlier Tuesday, Cohen met with Oliver Varhelyi of Hungary, commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, to discuss an EU research project into antisemitism in Palestinian Authority textbooks. They also talked about a potential EU-Israel demining project in Ukraine, and EU support for expanding the Abraham Accords.
According to Israel, Varhelyi promised that no EU funding will reach terror groups, even indirectly.