EU “closer than ever” to Israel

Benita Ferrero Waldner

BRUSSELS, 4 April (IPS) - Israel has been described as “closer to the European Union than ever before” by a leading Brussels official, even though a new EU report laments the ongoing killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces.

This week, the European Commission published a series of progress reports on its relations with countries neighboring the 27-country bloc.

Benita Ferrero Waldner, the EU’s external relations commissioner, used the occasion to indicate that she is keener to foster closer ties with Israel than with almost any other country in the Mediterranean region.

As well as remarking that Israel is “closer to the European Union than ever before,” she said that a “reflection group” is studying how relations between the two sides can be upgraded to a “truly special status.”

Formed in March last year by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s deputy prime minister, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, the reflection group has been tasked with paving the way for Israeli participation in implementing EU policies.

But Ferrero Waldner’s upbeat assessment of EU-Israeli ties contrasts with the recognition her officials have given to how Israeli forces are responsible for much of the violence that blights the Middle East.

In a new report, the Commission notes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in the deaths of 377 Palestinians during 2007. This was 29 times higher than the 13 Israeli lives lost.

A range of controversial issues relating to Israeli activities in the Palestinian territories — including the expansion of Israeli settlements and the continuing construction of the annexation wall that has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice — were also discussed by the two sides over the past year, the report adds. Yet it says that “little concrete progress was achieved” on any of these matters.

Israel’s relations with the EU are based on a so-called association agreement that entered into force in 2000. Article 2 of that agreement commits both sides to respecting fundamental human rights.

Notwithstanding the recognition that Israel routinely violates such rights, the European Commission has decided not to revoke the agreement but to press ahead with deepening ties. Israel is the first of the EU’s neighboring countries to participate in the Union’s competitiveness and innovation program, for example. With a budget of 3.6 billion euros (5.7 billion dollars), that scheme is designed to bolster small and medium-sized companies.

Ferrero-Waldner also called Israel a “leading partner” in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).

Palestinian solidarity campaigners were aghast this week at how the EU was so positive about its ties with Israel, when fresh evidence has emerged to suggest that the government led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not honoring commitments made at the US-sponsored “peace conference” in Annapolis, Maryland, in November last year.

At that event, Israel undertook to halt the expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories. Yet the Israeli organization Peace Now has calculated that 495 new buildings are currently being erected in over 100 settlements.

Pierre Galand from the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine said that Israel has “not been conforming with international law” by imposing an economic blockade in Gaza. While Israel has claimed that the blockade was in retaliation to rocket attacks from Palestinian armed groups, the United Nations has insisted that an entire population cannot be collectively punished because of the activities of some in their midst.

“This is unacceptable and intolerable and must be denounced,” Galand told IPS.

Sandrine Grenier, a Brussels spokeswoman for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, said there are inconsistencies between how the EU has approached different countries covered by the ENP. Whereas formal bodies have been set up to deal with human rights questions in Morocco and Jordan, only an informal “working group” addresses such issues in the case of Israel.

“There should not be double standards when it comes to cooperation with third countries,” Grenier added. “With Israel, the emphasis has been on economic cooperation. Human rights have not been completely forgotten but they are not being properly taken into account.”

Betty Hunter from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Britain said: “Even after the Annapolis meeting in November, Israel has done nothing to stop the creation of more settlements and outposts, and it has not lifted the economic blockade of Gaza. At a time when this is happening, it is unbelievable that the European Commission can talk about Israel as a government which should enjoy special status.”

A spokesman for Israel’s embassy to the EU was unavailable for comment.

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