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Top EU diplomat delaying key Israel meeting over Abu Akleh killing – official

Josep Borrell balked at advancing first Association Council since 2012 after journalist shot in disputed circumstances in Jenin, announcement of new settlement building

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, June 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, June 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell held up a key forum between Israel and the EU because of the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May, a senior European official told The Times of Israel on Monday.

The Association Council is a meeting that is meant to occur annually between Israel and the EU to cover matters of mutual concern. The last time the two sides met was in 2012, and, as foreign minister, Yair Lapid made it a goal to reconvene the forum.

At the May 16 EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels, the 27 EU foreign ministers managed to agree on a draft of a joint statement for an Association Council with Israel, a significant hurdle to overcome before convening the forum.

“We got it,” said the official. “That was a miracle.”

The final step was to get the text on the agenda of the European Council, the body that sets the political direction of the European Union. “That depends on Josep Borrell,” recounted the official.

Borrell had been reluctant to advance an Association Council with Israel, but came around because of pressure from EU member states.

Yellow tape marks bullet holes on a tree and a portrait and flowers create a makeshift memorial at the site where Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 19, 2022. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Until, that is, Abu Akleh, 51, was shot dead while covering an Israeli military raid in Jenin on May 11 alongside a team of other journalists. During the raid, a firefight broke out between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen and at some point, under disputed circumstances, Abu Akleh was shot in the head.

The next day, the Defense Ministry approved plans for 4,427 new settlement homes.

“There were two things that were unacceptable in terms of diplomacy — the killing of the journalist, and the announcement of 4,000 new settlements,” said the official.

“Borrell told us, can you imagine I am going to put on the agenda a meeting of cooperation with the images on TV… come on,” the European official said.

Borrell indicated to the ministers that he would advance the text during the six-month Czech presidency of the Council of Europe, which began on July 1.

The Foreign Affairs Council is meeting Monday in Brussels, where “a possible EU-Israel association council” is on the agenda.

Borrell’s spokesperson’s office did not provide a response when asked about the matter. Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

Israel signed an Association Agreement that defined its relationship with the EU in 1995 and ratified it in 2000. 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.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with 26 EU foreign ministers in Brussels, July 12, 2021. (European Union)

During its presidency of the EU Council, the French tried to advance the meeting with Israel. “We are looking forward to deepening the EU-Israel relations through the convening of the Association Council,” said France’s envoy to Israel Eric Danon in May. “We are currently working toward this perspective, mindful of the political and technical conditions pertaining to the EU rules and framework.”

For a number of years, individual EU states prevented the meetings from taking place.

Now, the sides are looking for a way to hold the Council again.

During Lapid’s meeting with his European Union counterparts last July, most countries supported the idea of scheduling an Association Council meeting and strengthening the bilateral relationship in general, sources inside the room told The Times of Israel.

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