EU and Israel take seats in Association Council

Today and tomorrow, members of the Association Council, the 15 members of the European Union and Israel will meet to discuss pending and new issues disrupting EU-Israel relations. This regular bilateral meeting will be used by the EU to express its concern over Israel’s boycott of Marc Otte, the EU envoy, who since his meeting with the Palestinian president could not talk to Israeli officials.

Of the Quartet’s four special envoys, only the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns is welcome in the offices of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Silvan Shalom.

The UN special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen has essentially been blackballed by Sharon and the foreign minister since comments he made about Jenin last year infuriated Jerusalem. The EU’s new envoy Marc Otte, who took over Miguel Moratinos in July, is also not welcome since he met with Palestinian president Yasser Arafat in the beginning of October. Also Russia’s envoy, Alexander Kalugin, who replaced Andrei Vdovin at the end of September, is not welcome in Israel since his meeting with Arafat.

According to various sources, the EU will also press Israel over the construction of the wall through the occupied Palestinian territories, which according to the EU is “unacceptable.” Last month, following the Security Council’s failure to act, an emergency session of the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of 144 in favour, to 4 against (Federated States of Micronesia, Israel, Marshall Islands, United States), with 12 abstentions, a resolution demanding that Israel stop and reverse construction of the wall being built in the West Bank.

Trade issues will also loom large in the talks — the EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner. EU-Israel trade is worth 22 billion euros annually. Within the trade issues, one important subject, which for years remains unresolved, is considerable evidence that Israel is violating its trade agreement with the EU, giving its goods preferential status in European markets.

Consistent with the obligations of the member states under international law, all EU trade agreements with Israel have limited their scope of territorial applicability, on the part of Israel, to the “territory of the State of Israel,” excluding the occupied territories, and, therefore, Israeli settlements.

This determination follows from Paragraph 83 of the trade agreement - the association agreement between Israel and the EU that was signed in 1995 and came into permanent effect on July 1, 2000, and Paragraph 49 of the Geneva Convention, to which all EU member countries are signatories.

This paragraph prohibits any occupying country from transferring or exiling part of its civilian population into the area that it occupies. In May 1998, the European Commission presented its interpretation in a communication stating: “Preferential access to Community markets for exports originating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and those from East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights contravene agreed rules of origin because under public international law, these territories do not form part of the State of Israel.”

This communication also stated: “There are indications that these exports are taking place. The European Community will take steps to verify the accuracy of this information according to the procedures that have been agreed upon with Israel … Should it be confirmed, such violations of the rules should be brought to an end.”

However, ever since more and more evidence has been established that Israel is exporting products that are not manufactured within its borders, rather in illegal settlements, with no import duty and labelled “made in Israel”.

Settlement products include goods such as dates, cherry tomatoes, avocados, fresh herbs, bell peppers, wine and flowers. The products are grown on land confiscated from Palestinians. But most settlement products are mixed with products from Israel proper and cannot be singled out.

According to the EU-Israel trade agreement, full duty should be levied on settlements products and correctly labelled as they should be according to member states’ national legislation. In other words, the EU and Israel should comply with the agreement that they have signed.

The Palestinian Authority has its own trade agreement with the EU. However the occupation has rendered the agreement irrelevant and useless. Palestinian farmers are forced to sell their products at sub-standard prices to Israeli companies for export. In addition extensive amounts of Palestinian produce is spoiled because of the occupation and its effect on daily Palestinian life.

The EU-Israel talks come barely days after the European Social Forum, where Palestine dominated the debate among its 50,000 participants in Paris. The forum, which is fast becoming the global protest movement’s collective think tank, saw hundreds of delegates queuing in the road, unable to get into packed meetings on the Palestinian struggle.

A sign of growing criticism of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis Palestinians was shown in an EU opinion poll, sparking a minor diplomatic spat between Brussels and Jerusalem. The poll of 7,500 people in the EU’ 15 member states found that Europeans believe Israel is the biggest threat to world peace — ahead of North Korea, Iran and the United States in joint second place.