InterviewIn EU-Israel ties, 'the best is yet to come'

French ambassador: Every passing day jeopardizes chances of Iran deal

As France assumes European Council presidency, Eric Danon says EU and Israel have much to learn from one another but warns that lack of progress with Palestinians cannot be ignored

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

French Ambassador to Israel Eric Danon (courtesy French Embassy Tel Aviv)
French Ambassador to Israel Eric Danon (courtesy French Embassy Tel Aviv)

Time is running out to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, Eric Danon, the French ambassador to Israel, told The Times of Israel.

“Together with the EU and other involved parties, France is making every effort in the ongoing talks to reach a deal that prevents Iran from becoming a threshold State and restores a non-proliferation environment,” he declared. “But time is running out, and every passing day jeopardizes the chance of finding a solution that respects the interests of all sides.”

Danon’s comments echoed those of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Danon said that France was also determined to address “Iran’s actions in the region.”

Israel and its Arab peace partners have been vocal about their concerns around Iran’s support for terrorists and armed proxy groups in the Middle East. The 2015 deal under discussion in Vienna deals strictly with Iran’s nuclear program, and not with its missile programs or proxy networks.

Chief negotiators from Iran and Europe returned home from Vienna for consultations on Saturday, with the expectation that the eighth round of talks would resume on Monday.

The main aims of the negotiations are to get the US to return to the deal and lift sanctions, and for Iran to resume full compliance with the accord. Tehran is seeking verification of the sanctions easing, as well as guarantees that Washington will not withdraw from the deal again.

“On this matter like on others, our dialogue with the Israeli authorities is permanent and meaningful, as shown by the recent phone call between President Macron and Minister Lapid,” Danon said. “France’s commitment to the security of Israel remains steadfast.”

Six weeks after they met in Paris, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron a week ago, discussing the Vienna talks and bilateral ties in a conversation that stretched well beyond the allotted time.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, on November 30, 2021. (MFA/Quentin Crestinu)

As France assumes the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, Danon relayed his expectation that economic ties between Europe and Israel would continue to expand, while making clear that the lack of progress toward a two-state solution continues to prevent the full blossoming of the relationship.

“France and the EU are deeply convinced that lasting regional stability and Israel’s security cannot be achieved without the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “The last escalation [11 days of fighting with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in May] has once again shown the necessity to make progress towards a political, negotiated two-state solution, based on international law and agreed parameters.”

He said that the EU welcomes recent gestures that Israel has initiated toward the Palestinian Authority — both economic and legalizing the residency status of some Palestinians in the West Bank — and hopes that they will be expanded.

“We believe that additional measures could be taken, on both sides, in order to rebuild the mutual trust which keeps being jeopardized by unilateral measures,” he continued. “Such steps would definitely provide a solid ground to strengthen Euro-Israeli relations, but would first and foremost help increase regional stability and guarantee Israel’s security.

“You can rest assured that France and the EU will remain fully committed towards this perspective.”

At the same time, Danon said that Paris’ priorities for Europe in the coming months “bear great potential for the relationship between the EU and Israel.”

French Ambassador to Israel Eric Danon in 2019 (Courtesy Foreign Ministry)

“Our agenda has three main ambitions,” he told The Times of Israel. “One, a more sovereign Europe, more capable of action in the fields of security and defense, both internally and externally; two, a new European model of growth, which can sustain the digital and climate transitions while harnessing innovation and generating employment;  and lastly a more humane Europe, that defends the rule of law, upholds its values and secures a future for the generations to come.”

Danon said that Israel and Europe share similar concerns on regional stability, including fighting terrorism and keeping Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon.

He pointed to Israel’s innovation and technological excellence, which can help Europe shape its economic models for the future.

“Last but not least, the defense of our most important values such as democracy, equality and rule of law can never be taken for granted,” he said. “The coming months will offer occasions to learn again from each other, particularly in the fight against antisemitism.”

Waiting for the Association Council

During its presidency, which began on January 1, France — always a dominant force in the EU — will set the agenda for the European Council, run meetings, and represent the council in foreign affairs and defense matters.

Israel’s ambassador to the EU and NATO, Haim Regev, signs the Horizon Europe research agreement with EU Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, December 6, 2021 (EU)

Despite close personal ties between Lapid and Macron, the French leader’s attention will be increasingly devoted to April’s presidential elections.

The French EU presidency comes as Israel-France ties, and Israel- EU ties, are steadily improving. But important obstacles remain, especially the Association Council between Israel and the EU.

Israel signed an Association Agreement that defined its relationship with the EU in 1995 and ratified it in 2000, which stipulates that the two sides meet once a year in an Association Council to discuss matters of mutual concern. The last time the sides met was in 2012, when Avigdor Liberman was foreign minister.

Israel canceled the Council in 2013, when the EU angered Israel 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.

“The EU is committed to a regular and result-oriented dialogue with Israel, which again recently led to the conclusion of the Horizon Europe agreement,” Danon said. “A meeting of the Association Council would certainly generate great new prospects but requires prior consensus on its key objectives and messages. We will be working hard in the next weeks and months to obtain such consensus, in light of respective political environments. In the meantime, it does not prevent us from moving forward on the cooperation tracks already identified, including on bilateral EU-Israeli trade.”

Israel joined Horizon Europe, the European Union’s largest research and innovation program, in December. The agreement opens the way for Israeli academics and companies to bid for billions of euros in research funding.

The Elysee presidential palace is litten with the colors of the European flag on January 6, 2022 in Paris to mark the French presidency of the European Union (Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

The Horizon Europe program will allocate 95.5 billion euros ($111 billion) in grants from 2021 to 2027.

Danon said that Horizon Europe and existing agreements are already benefiting Israelis and Europeans alike.

“The Open Skies deal, ratified in 2020, led to significant airfare reduction and opening of additional routes,” he pointed out. “Israel’s participation to the EU Digital Covid Certificate program enabled mutual recognition of our Green passes. Our agreements on agricultural trade and pharmaceutical products have been providing a strong basis to our economic relations.

“We are also convinced that Europe and Israel can help the world accelerate its twin digital and green transitions, through the excellency of their human capital and the ingenuity of their startups,” he continued. “The harmonization of norms and standards, in areas such as public transportation or food products, will be one of our main guidelines. And let us not forget the implementation of the EU’s New Agenda for the Mediterranean, which will include a series of flagship investments to further promote economic and human development in the region.

“The best is yet to come.”

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