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After years of settlement-related disagreements and holdups

Israel, sans West Bank, officially joins EU’s huge flagship R&D program

Horizon Europe will allocate over €95 billion for research in 2021-2027; Israelis allowed to bid on quantum computing, but not space, tenders

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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)
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)

Israel officially joined the European Union’s largest research and innovation program on Monday, opening the way for Israeli academics and companies to bid for billions of euros in research funding.

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

Formal talks with the EU on Israel’s association with the program concluded on October 9. Both sides completed their internal ratification processes in the ensuing weeks.

Haim Regev, ambassador to the EU and NATO, signed the agreement in Brussels alongside EU Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

“Reflecting back on the 25 years of cooperation, I am proud of our breakthroughs in ICT, health, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and climate,” said Gabriel in a statement marking the signing. “I look forward to new success stories. In partnership with Israel, I hope to boost our innovation capacity in support of green and digital agendas and enhance science cooperation in the region as a tool for greater peace and security.”

The deal over Israel’s participation in the previous European research partnership program was initially held up over EU guidelines on funding for programs and companies in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The sides eventually agreed that a clause would be added to the Horizon 2020 pact stating that Israel does not accept the EU’s definition of territory beyond the 1967 lines.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C-R) and then-science, technology and space minister Yaakov Peri (R) meet with President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso (C-L), and sign an agreement for Israel to participate in the European Horizon 2020 program, in Jerusalem on June 8, 2014. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

The current Horizon Europe agreement will follow the same formula, the Foreign Ministry spokesman told The Times of Israel.

However, the talks, which were expected to be wrapped up months ago, were held up over a number of other issues.

The fact that three of the countries that received the most research funding from Horizon 2020 — Israel, the United Kingdom and Switzerland — are not in the EU led to changes in the financial arrangements with EU-associated non-member states like Israel.

Switzerland is not participating in Horizon Europe at all, and EU negotiators took a tougher line with the UK after Brexit, which meant that Israel would have to agree to a similar, less favorable agreement. One of the terms is that once an associated country receives eight percent more in funds than it contributed, it will have to begin contributing back into the program the amount of any further funding its researchers are granted.

Israel is expected to pay at least €2.5 billion into the program, according to Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, director of the program on Israel-Europe relations at the Mitvim foreign policy think tank. In Horizon 2020, Israel received €360 million more than it contributed, she said, and is expected to be in a similar situation over the next six years, assuming its researchers continue to be successful in winning research grants.

Left to right: EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret, Nili Shalev, ISERD Director-General and Aharon Aharon, CEO, Israel Innovation Authority at the Horizon 2020 awards ceremony in Jaffa on June 4, 2019 (Yossi Zamir; GPO)

However, Sion-Tzidkiyahu stressed, the direct balance between Israel’s investment and monetary return does not capture the program’s strategic importance for Israel: “The added value of joining the program is crucial for Israel’s economy, and in the case of quantum computing, we can also talk about national security. The monetary return is a bonus, not the goal.”

The other complication in the talks revolved around access to quantum computing and space projects. The EU’s goal of “strategic autonomy” has made members reluctant to cooperate with non-member states — including Israel — on sensitive research areas.

After intensive negotiations, the EU allowed Israel to participate in quantum computing research — with certain caveats on intellectual property and more — but the space arrangement has still not been worked out.

New space research tenders will be issued in 2023, and Israel is expected to be allowed to bid by then.

Horizon 2020 cooperation between the EU and Israel led to a number of breakthroughs, including Israel’s Daphne Haim Langford winning the 2021 EU Prize for Women Innovators for her work on disruptive medical solutions to cure specific ocular diseases.

Other success stories include InRoad, smart roads studs; ENEXAL, green aluminum production technologies; NANOPACK, packaging material to reduce food waste; SniffPhone, which can detect cancer through breath; and beAWARE, a platform for coping with extreme weather events.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in October that joining the Horizon program “situates Israel as a central player in the largest and most important R&D program in the world.”

He added that the agreement is part of “the statecraft of connections, by drawing closer not only to the EU, but also to the European countries, and by connecting the science and technology sector in Israel with its counterparts on the continent.”

The EU said in an October statement: “In return to giving Israel access to a vast international research network, the European Research Area has benefited from Israel’s high levels of excellence as well as outstanding innovation capacity.” The EU noted that joint projects with Israel have led to breakthroughs in climate change, public health and safe transportation.

“Israel joining the program expresses the importance Israel places on investment in and support for R&D as a key to future economic growth,” said Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Prof. Nadav Katz at the Hebrew University’s Quantum Information Science Center. (Yitz Woolf/ Hebrew University)

Yael Ravia-Zadok, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Economic Diplomacy Divison, said the agreement is “a European show of trust in the cruciality of Israeli science, technology and innovation.”

A Mitvim survey taken this year found that a full 47% of Israelis oppose participating in EU programs that exclude settlements — like Horizon Europe —  while only 35% support participation.

The year-long talks between Israel and the EU were led by the Foreign Ministry, along with the Israel Innovation Authority’s Israel-Europe R&D Directorate, the Finance Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Science and Technology Ministry, and the Council for Higher Education.

Israel has been a partner in the EU’s research and innovation framework programs since 1996, when it joined the EU’s fourth research program — the first non-European country to do so.

In total, €1.098 billion were allocated to Israeli projects and firms in Horizon 2020.

The program has enabled Israeli companies, researchers, and innovators to gain access to European partners, to integrate into an extensive infrastructure of European research, and participate in flagship projects, including in the fields of quantum technologies, graphene and brain research.

Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report. 

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