26th Jan 2021

Israel believes war won't harm EU relations upgrade

Despite the carnage wrought by Israel on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state's ambassador to the European Union, Ran Curiel, has said that the conflict should not have any effect on the planned upgrade of relations between Israel and the EU.

"I don't expect any change to the process of upgrading relations," he told a group of journalists in Brussels. "The positions of Israel and the EU are actually converging."

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  • Israeli flag: it was announced in June last year to take relations between the two sides to a higher level (Photo: Wikipedia)

In June last year, the EU-Israel Association Council - the body headed by foreign ministers that conducts the bilateral relations between Israel and EU - announced an upgrade in relations between the two parties.

Accelerated negotiations were subsequently launched on the specific nature of the upgrade in three areas; increased diplomatic co-operation; participation in European plans and agencies; and possible Israeli integration into the European single market.

"We have done this [the assault on Gaza] reluctantly and without a choice," he said. "Our citizens are daily exposed to a sort of game of Russian roulette from the Hamas rockets. I don't know of any country that could allow its citizens to be subjected to such imminent danger without reacting."

"We are not fighting the Palestinian civilians, but Hamas, which is on the EU terror list."

"And remember, the upgrade is not a gift to Israel. Europe may think it is doing a favour to the recipient country, but we don't think so. The upgrade is of mutual interest to both Israel and the EU."

However, the language coming from Brussels on the upgrade is slightly cooler than it was before the 27 December Gaza invasion, which has killed at least 640 Palestinians and injured 2,850, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Gaza invasion 'doesn't help'

Jan Sliva, a spokesman for the Czech EU presidency, said: "It is too early to say whether the conflict will have an effect on the upgrade of relations [between the EU and Israel], but obviously it doesn't help."

Another EU official also warned that the decision to upgrade relations with the Jewish state was only a "preliminary step" and any movement further in this regard "depends on conditions on the ground."

Nevertheless, Mr Curiel, who was in Israel when the EU peace delegation arrived in Israel on Monday, said that their discussion suggested "a converging agenda" regarding the current conflict.

"I didn't feel differences between us and our EU interlocutors," he said. "A majority of the member states want the upgrade to go ahead."

"Of course, the conception of the EU is that it doesn't like violence anywhere," he continued. "The EU was founded on the renunciation of the use of force to settle disputes, while Israel is still living in a neighbourhood where it has no choice but to do so."

He did say however that where the EU emphasises the need for a cease-fire, Israel emphasises the need for "a cessation of terror."

"We have made it clear to the EU that they should not be calling for an end to violence on both sides."

He added that he had been happy with the language the Czech EU presidency has been using. "[Czech foreign minister] Karel Schwarzenberg has called for a ceasefire, but saying that first the shelling must stop."

Focus must be on Hamas

Israel's requirements for a cease-fire are fourfold: an end to the shelling, a halt to the smuggling of weapons via Egypt, the prevention of Hamas re-arming and, fundamentally, the ambassador insisted, "There must be no increased legitimacy for Hamas."

He said it was too early to speak of a role for the international community in the dispute, but that in terms of bring weapons smuggling to an end, "this is mainly an Egyptian responsibility, but they may need assistance and equipment and there, Europe can come in."

"For this, we have no problem approaching Europe now. This is something that was not the case five or six years ago."

"There was too much mistrust historically - Europe's history, both its shadows and its light, and too much criticism," he said. "It was a very shallow interchange. For our part, Israel was also content to just say ‘those old anti-semites'. It was very black and white, but now we've introduced a lot of grey to the relationship."

The key was a change in Europe's attitude to Israel, the ambassador believes, after the attacks of 11 September in the United States and a greater understanding of terrorism in the world.

Israel is now looking to considerably closer ties to Europe. "We were a strong supporter of the Barcelona Process [established to tighten relations between the EU and the Maghreb and Mashriq regions] from the start and now the Union for the Mediterranean."

Joining the EU

In the distant future, even joining the EU may be an option. "I don't think it should be excluded as a vision, but it's not in the cards yet due to Israel's special situation."

In 2007, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's then minister of strategic affairs, suggested Israel should apply for membership of the 27-state bloc within five years.

At the same time, neither EU nor Israeli leaders have seriously considered the option, but according to a February 2007 poll by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German centre-right think-tank, 75 percent of Israeli citizens believe their country should become a member.

The ambassador did acknowledge however that there is opposition to the upgrade amongst MEPs.

"There is some resistance in the parliament - some, but I would not say a lot. Some voices are negative; some positive."

He later visited the parliament to speak to both supporters of Israel's actions and opponents "because it is not our supporters that we need to convince."

An EU-Israel summit is scheduled in the first half of this year under the Czech presidency.

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