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In meetings with Lapid, EU expresses eagerness to improve Israel ties

Most nations back resumption of key annual forum for first time since 2012; Egypt also displays interest in boosting bilateral relations

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrives for a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on July 12, 2021. (JOHN THYS / AFP)
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrives for a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on July 12, 2021. (JOHN THYS / AFP)

During Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s meeting with his European Union counterparts on Monday, Israel and the EU moved closer toward agreeing on restoring a key annual bilateral forum that hasn’t taken place since 2012, sources inside the room told The Times of Israel.

Most countries at Lapid’s meeting with the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels supported the idea of scheduling an Association Council meeting and strengthening the bilateral relationship in general.

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

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Sunday expressed his own desire to set ties on a new path, calling Lapid’s visit “an opportunity for a fresh start, for restarting the relationship with Israel from the point of view of our bilateral relations, but also about the situation in the Middle East.”

But he also said that “bilateral relations are also conditioned to many issues in which we have differences,” and committed to working together toward resuming Association Council meetings “if the conditions are met.”

France, a leading EU power whose foreign ministry has been critical of Israel, was in favor of convening an Association Council meeting this year. Some countries did not mention the suspended bilateral meeting, while  Luxembourg did express reservations.

Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, June 25, 2012 (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)After the Abraham Accords were signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in September 2020, Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn criticized the deal as abandoning the Palestinians.

Lapid’s meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry the previous evening also revealed a mutual desire to move the bilateral relationship forward, sources familiar with the talks said.

Lapid and Shoukry discussed the Palestinians and Gaza reconstruction, but also spent significant time discussing Israel-Egypt ties.

Significantly, the new Israeli foreign minister also gave an interview to an official Egyptian media outlet. An interview by a senior Israeli official in an outlet affiliated with the regime has not occurred in recent years, and indicates an openness by Cairo to having official Israeli positions presented directly to the Egyptian public.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, July 12, 2021 (NATO)

In contrast to the secret meeting between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Jordan’s King Abdullah two weeks ago, Israel was allowed to share footage from the talks, and Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman posted photos on his official Twitter page.

In his address to his EU counterparts, Lapid backed a two-state solution with the Palestinians and noted Europe’s and Israel’s shared democratic values, seeking to open a new chapter with the bloc after over a decade of strained ties.

The comments appeared designed to mark a break with Israel’s previous administration, which under then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had aligned itself closely with a Central-Eastern European bloc within the EU — an area dubbed “new Europe” by Donald Rumsfeld — led by countries ruled by strongmen and right-wing populists and which opposed some of Brussels more liberal policies.

While maintaining its close relationship with the pro-Israel Visegrad Group, Lapid has sought to reset ties with major European powers and the EU itself, Israel’s largest trading partner and an important strategic ally.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban places a paper note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City during his visit to Israel on July 20, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

He opened his remarks in English on Monday by asking for “a new start.”

Unlike Netanyahu and foreign ministers who served under him, Lapid gave full-throated backing to Palestinian statehood, though he admitted that efforts toward that end were not advancing and that Israel would only agree to make peace with a democratic Palestinian state that truly seeks an end to the conflict.

“It is no secret that I support a two-state solution,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is no current plan for this.”

“However, there is one thing we all need to remember. If there is eventually a Palestinian state, it must be a peace-loving democracy. We cannot be asked to take part in the building of another threat to our lives,” he said.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (right) and the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, in Brussels on July 11, 2021. (Twitter)

In addition to creating momentum on bilateral agreements, Lapid also sought to explain to EU ministers what the new Israeli government, which he put together, represents.

He said that the new government, led by settlement supporter Naftali Bennett and joined by parties on the far left, erases the traditional right-left framework in Israel.

“The key message is that different people, with different opinions, can have dialogue and work together without resorting to a zero-sum game. It is new, but it is also a return to the core roots of liberal democracies: making decisions that one can disagree with, without hating those with whom we disagree,” he said.

Lapid also met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday, ahead of a series of bilateral talks with several of his European counterparts.

Lapid expressed his desire to deepen ties with NATO and his readiness to support the alliance in intelligence, cyber, counterterrorism, climate change, maritime security, missile defense and civilian emergency management.

He also invited Stoltenberg to visit Israel.

After the hour-long talk with Stoltenberg, Lapid spent 15 minutes each with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le-Drian, and Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag, before finishing his meetings with the Czech Republic’s top diplomat, Jakub Kulhanek.

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