EU boosts ties with Israel, ignores settlements and occupation

BRUSSELS (IPS) - Diplomats representing the European Union (EU) have drawn up a new plan for strengthening their relations with Israel despite the expansion of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Spain, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, is eager that work proceeds on formally upgrading the Union’s political and commercial ties with Israel over the next few months.

Although both the EU and Israel had agreed in 2008 to undertake steps designed to integrate Israel into the Union’s economy, work on this dossier has partly stalled because of the subsequent war in Gaza. But a confidential paper written by Spanish officials suggests that fresh discussions should soon be opened with Israel so that the upgrading process can regain its momentum.

The paper, seen by IPS, is dated 9 March, the same day that Israel was heavily criticized internationally for using the occasion of a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden to announce that it would be building 1,600 new homes in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem. A day earlier Israel’s defense ministry had published plans for 112 apartments in Beitar Illit, a settlement in the occupied West Bank.

The paper was originally intended for approval at a formal meeting between Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli foreign minister, and his EU counterparts on 23 March. Yet that meeting has been called off at short notice.

Brussels officials have sought to downplay the significance of the cancellation and say that the meeting would be rescheduled for April or May. A source close to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, noted that she had met Lieberman during her trip to the Middle East the previous week. “We do not want a duplication” of the talks held then, the source said, insisting that the cancellation was “not a diplomatic reaction” to the growth of Israeli settlements.

Although Ashton has described settlements in East Jerusalem as “illegal,” the Spanish paper refers to them as “unhelpful,” echoing the mild language that Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, has sometimes used when addressing this issue. The Spanish document also “notes positively” the investigations that Israel has carried out into the behavior of its troops during their attacks on Gaza in late 2008 and early last year.

By contrast, numerous human rights organizations have complained that those investigations did not comply with the terms of a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in November last year. Whereas the assembly demanded that the investigations into the war, which left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, should be independent and credible, Israel has so far only prosecuted one soldier over the theft of a credit card.

Earlier this month, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a “people’s court” set up by an alliance of political activists, concluded that the EU had not honored its obligations under international law to hold Israel to account for atrocities committed by its troops in Gaza. Frank Barat, a coordinator of the tribunal, said that the investigations by Israel had “been pretty much a whitewash.”

He underscored that the association agreement between the EU and Israel that came into effect in 2000 requires that both sides respect human rights. So far the EU has refused to suspend the agreement or revoke the trade preferences it has granted to Israel in protest at the cruelty meted out to the Palestinians. “The impunity enjoyed by Israel is mind-boggling,” Barat added.

Maysa Zorob, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, said that Spain’s willingness to approve Israeli investigations into the war on Gaza was “very dangerous for the EU’s credibility and commitment to human rights.”

“Spain is very keen about putting the upgrade [in EU-Israel relations] back on the table,” she added. “Why Spain is so keen is really something incomprehensible for me. I cannot even imagine the motivation behind this.”

Some observers feel that once the upgrade is completed, Israel would be a de facto member state of the EU. In a farewell visit to the Middle East before stepping down as the EU’s first foreign policy chief last year, Javier Solana said that Israel enjoys closer relations with the Union than any other country outside the European continent. Israel already participates in a wide variety of EU programs, ranging from archaeology to satellite navigation.

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, called on the EU to rethink its policy of responding to Israel’s violations of international law with what he termed “quiet diplomacy.”

In a letter sent to Ashton over the past week, Sourani wrote: “It is perhaps appropriate to paraphrase an old proverb: ‘insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results.’ The time for a new approach has come. This approach must be firmly grounded in the rule of international law.”

“If the EU’s international standing is to be preserved, the Union can no longer continue to exude a double standard when it comes to the State of Israel. This double standard is not only in violation of the Union’s own obligations, by its inaction the EU also becomes complicit in Israel’s policy of disregard for fundamental human rights and its violations of international law.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2010). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.