New EU envoy vows to take seriously Israeli feelings that Brussels is hostile
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Interview

New EU envoy vows to take seriously Israeli feelings that Brussels is hostile

Emanuele Giaufret on why he's engaging with settlers and why Europe opposes recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital despite Jews' undeniable, 'very strong connection' to the city

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret in his Ramat Gan office (Ariel Zandberg)
EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret in his Ramat Gan office (Ariel Zandberg)

The European Union’s new ambassador to Israel has pledged to take seriously Israelis’ perception that Brussels is hostile toward the Jewish state, vowing to combat the organization’s poor reputation by engaging with all sectors of Israeli society — including settlers.

In an wide-ranging interview, Emanuele Giaufret also expressed sympathy for Israel’s desire to maintain a Jewish majority, and for the Jewish people’s “very close connection” to Jerusalem.

Despite having served here for four years in the previous decade, Giaufret said he was still surprised today by how many Israelis consider the EU hostile toward their state.

“I think these views don’t reflect the facts. But it’s important that we listen to these views and not brush them away. If they exist, they are important,” he told The Times of Israel in his office on the 16th floor of Ramat Gan’s Paz Tower.

“Reality is made out of the facts and the way we interpret at the facts. If someone is of the opinion that there is profound hostility at the EU, we have to understand why,” he said. “It is an issue that has surprised me, but of course forces me to look at the way the EU communicates itself vis-a-vis the Israelis, the way we interact with Israel, with all strands of Israeli society.”

Giaufret, who served as head of the embassy’s political department between 2003 and 2007, and returned as ambassador in October, said that EU diplomats naturally gravitate toward Israelis with similar political positions. “But there are other people with different views who are equally important,” he said.

“When you connect with them, the difference is actually not that wide. But the perception is actually a problem. The work here is to engage with everyone and to listen to everyone. And to explain where we stand.”

President Reuven Rivlin ‘dabs’ with the new EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret’s sons at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 26, 2017. (Screen capture: Facebook)

The major source for EU-Israel friction is Brussels’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly its vehement opposition to settlements and to the US administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In July Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was overheard denouncing as “crazy” the EU’s insistence on conditioning some agreements with Israel on progress in the peace process.

Giaufret’s mandate ends at the 1967 lines and he never visits East Jerusalem or the West Bank, but he stressed that it was important for him to exchange views even with representatives of the settlement movement.

You cannot brush aside anyone’s position. The minimum is that you sit down and listen to everyone

“There are no groups in Israel that should not be listened to; everyone has the right to express themselves. I am meeting everyone in Israel who is legitimate,” the Italian career diplomat said.

“There’s a religious element in their positions on settlements, and I think that everyone needs to understand that,” he said about his meetings with pro-settler advocates. “You cannot brush aside anyone’s position. The minimum is that you sit down and listen to everyone.”

The peace process is an important part of EU-Israel ties, but there are many other aspects of the relations, such as in trade and educational and scientific cooperation and joint efforts to combat Islamic terrorism and anti-Semitism, he said.

“We tend to focus on issues that divide us, and this is a problem that we also have in Europe,” he lamented. “The image of Israel is not great in Europe, because we tend to focus on a very thin number of topics. We need to be able to overcome this vicious circle.”

“The Europeans don’t have any lessons to give to the Israelis in certain things,” said Giaufret, who holds a PhD in the history of international relations from the University of Florence. “But we need to be able to express very openly our positions,” he added.

EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret, second from left, with members of the family of Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen who is held by Hamas in Gaza (Ariel Zandberg)

And the union’s longstanding position on the peace process and on Jerusalem has not changed, he insisted, despite apparent recent shifts from the US.

“We don’t see any alternative to the two-state solution, because we feel that the Israelis would like to have their own state in which the Jews are a majority and where they can live their own identity. And a one-state solution, to us, is not compatible with this desire, which is understandable.”

The EU and Israel have no fundamental disagreement on the final outcome — a secure Israel next to a stable Palestine, he went on. But the two parties differ on how to get there, which “can cause frictions and misunderstandings and disagreements sometimes. You have to work around this.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the EU’s Brussels headquarter last month was a welcome opportunity to do just this, Giaufret said.

“I think it’s important that we discuss these issues with the prime minister,” he went on. “We might not be able to immediately find agreement on all points, but the dialogue is key. Europe is interested in contributing to the solution of the conflict.”

Netanyahu was “welcomed very warmly” by the union’s foreign policy czar, Federica Mogherini, and foreign ministers from nearly all 28 member states, said Giaufret, who attended the meetings.

“There is no sense of hostility vis-a-vis Israel,” he asserted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) holds a joint press conference with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini in Brussels, Belgium, October 11, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The EU is willing to step up its effort to help along the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Giaufret said, adding, however, that it would be “difficult to imagine a successful peace initiative without the US administration playing a role.”

The EU is now waiting for and readying to support the peace initiative the White House is expected to present in the coming months, he said.

Giaufret defended Brussels’ vociferous rejection of US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as merely adhering to international law and previous global consensus on the matter.

‘We understand very well the connection that the Jewish people feel vis-a-vis Jerusalem. That’s something that no one can deny.’

At the same time, he stressed his appreciation of the importance the city has for many Jews.

“We understand very well the connection that the Jewish people feel vis-a-vis Jerusalem. That’s something that no one can deny, that there is a very strong connection,” he offered.

At the same time, the city is also very important to Palestinians and the larger Arab world, which is why the EU insists that its status must be agreed upon in negotiations, Giaufret said

“We decided to remain loyal to that consensus that was established in 1980,” he added, referring to UN Security Council Resolution 478, which called on all states to withdraw their embassies from Jerusalem. This resolution was passed with 14 yes votes and an American abstention.

The 1967 line remains the “key parameter” for how the EU regards the conflict, Giaufret affirmed, but allowed that negotiations would likely lead to an “adjustment of this border.”

“No one wants to prejudge and enter the details of these types of negotiations,” he said.

Worshipers at the annual priestly blessing at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Sukkot holiday, October 8, 2017. (Israel Police)

Giaufret, who has served at the European Commission Delegation to the UN in New York as counselor in charge of human rights and social affairs, said he understands “very well” Israelis’ frustration about recent UNESCO resolutions putting question marks on Jewish ties to the city.

“These are decisions that can raise concerns and anger,” he said. On the other hand, he expressed regret at Israel’s decision to quit UNESCO, arguing that engagement and dialogue are always the best way forward.

“We believe in the multilateral system with all its shortcomings and imperfections, and there are quite a few. I served in New York, so I’ve seen firsthand that these imperfections exist. But it’s the only way for us to build, with a lot of efforts and pain, progress for the management of the international community.”

Indeed, international organizations can “strengthen the legitimacy of Israel as a part of the family of nations,” he said. Israel has recently displayed an increasing appetite for engagement with international UN agencies, seeking to promote candidates for various posts, he added.

“The EU encourages Israel to take an active role in international affairs. We believe that the legitimacy of Israel cannot be questioned.”

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