Israel has won the European cup: a special relationship

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana called Israel’s blockade of Gaza “collective punishment,” is seen meeting with then Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, October 2006. (Moti Milrod/MaanImages)

During her sixth visit to Israel since last November’s Annapolis summit, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained that the thousands of new housing units, built in Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land were damaging the peace talks with Palestinians. Meanwhile, at a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Luxembourg, the same day, Slovenia’s Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, announced that the EU had decided to upgrade its political and economic relations with Israel. Rupel, who chaired the EU-Israel Association Council meeting, the body overseeing the relationship, stated that the EU and Israel are “elevating” their relations to a new level of “more intense, more fruitful, more influential cooperation.” Israel has now been granted the highest level of relations available to a non-member state.

The cooperation is based on the European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan, an initiative launched under the Dutch EU Presidency in 2004, aimed at bringing the neighboring countries closer to the EU. This European move might seem surprising since a progress report on the implementation of the European Neighborhood Policy stated clearly that “little concrete progress” has been made on issues raised between Israel and the EU, such as restrictions on movement, the construction of the West Bank wall (its route ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice), administrative detentions, the dismantling of settler “outposts,” and the expansion of Israeli settlements.

Over the weekend, before the Monday announcement, the EU governments were still split between countries that wanted to link the upgrade to improvements in the moribund peace process or no link at all. A number of non-governmental organizations tried to press for linkages to Israel’s atrocious human rights record and the end to the siege of Gaza but Israeli diplomatic efforts and various national interests of member states proved to be stronger. A compromise was found in a softened link to progress in the peace process and the by now utopian two-state solution.

For years, Israel has ignored EU concerns about settlement construction on occupied territories, Israeli human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, house demolitions and other breaches of the EU-Israel Association Agreement and international law. As recently as January, top EU officials, including foreign policy chief Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip “collective punishment,” defined as a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Conventions.

Tzipi Livni said that the talks were a milestone in EU-Israel relations, even though the agreement did not completely satisfy the original wishes of Israel, which also sought the introduction of regular summits with the EU and meetings with EU ministers. Yet the upgrade includes enhanced cooperation in political, economic, scientific, legal, cultural, educational and counter-terrorism matters and, according to Rupel, is based on “a mutual commitment to important common values.”

Rupel added that “There are obvious reasons for which strengthened political cooperation between the EU and Israel should be understood as a cooperation which contributes to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He did not address why Israel should be rewarded with unconditional ties, despite its violations, while Palestinians under Israeli military occupation should be subjected to harsh EU sanctions and a boycott that has intensified the suffering of the civilian population. Livni stated that “it is clear that Israel and Europe share the same values and the same interests.”

Until now, under the EU’s Neighborhood Policy Israel was the only country without a subcommittee on human rights.

Israel’s diplomatic relations with most European states and EU institutions have improved significantly in recent years. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany have been the closest allies of Israel within the EU. Even before she became Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel told the Israeli daily Haaretz that “it is of the utmost importance that we preserve the vitality of relations and avoid turning them into something that is only formal and ceremonial.”

On 19 May, at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel, Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen told Israel supporters at a symposium that he pressed the EU to intensify its relations with Israel and made good by inviting several Israeli government officials to The Hague. Earlier this year he told participants of the Herzilya conference in Israel that Israel’s association with the European internal market could be deepened, as well as “its involvement in various European agencies, programs and working groups.”

At that time, he said that “part and parcel of this process would be strengthening the human rights dialogue between Israel and the EU” but those familiar with past human rights dialogues in the context of the EU-Israel Association Agreement know that these are empty words as the Luxembourg announcement clearly demonstrates.

He also said that “halting the expansion of settlements and dismantling outposts would make a great difference in this respect” but the ongoing expansion of construction activities in a hundred settler colonies at this moment suggests that it didn’t make any difference.

With East European newcomers, the EU has now a bigger share of friends of Israel. Notably the Czech Republic and Poland opposed any linking of the upgrade of relations with Israel to its behavior. With the return of right-wing governments in France and Italy, EU policy has tilted more towards the line of the Bush Administration. As France, led by President Nicolas Sarkozy, takes over the EU presidency on 1 July, it is expected that the tilt towards Israel will continue.

Arjan El Fassed is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and the author of Niet iedereen kan stenen gooien (Uitgeverij Nieuwland, 2008).

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