24th May 2019

EU-Israel relations set to stay in limbo

  • Israeli soldier praying before he goes into battle in December 2008 (Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

The EU is unlikely to upgrade relations with Israel when its foreign minister comes to Brussels in June, after a six month break in normal bilateral talks.

A group of EU countries including Belgium, Sweden and Portugal remains opposed to the move. The Netherlands has in the past stood almost alone in advocating it, while most member states are keeping silent.

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The delicate situation arises from uncertainty on whether the new Israeli government will sign up to a two-state solution on Palestine, curb settlement expansion and let more aid into Gaza.

EU relations with Arab countries are also at stake, with Israel's bloody incursion into Gaza in January still fresh in the minds of its neighbours.

EU states last June formally launched the upgrade process, asking the European Commission to create an Action Plan for increased diplomatic co-operation, Israeli integration with the single market and joint transport and education projects.

But they quietly pushed the scheme off the agenda after the Gaza offensive.

Israeli-critical EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has also put the brakes on progress.

Her officials have not put forward any new Action Plan proposal. EU diplomats continue to have normal day-to-day contact with Israeli counterparts. But the commission has not organised any meetings of EU-Israel sub-committees on technical issues since January, in a period that would normally see around six such events.

The upgrade question will be the main topic of discussion when Israel's hawkish new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, meets with EU foreign relations chiefs in Brussels on 15 June.

Mr Lieberman is likely to be greeted with politely-worded disapproval rather than a rapprochement, however.

A seven page EU draft declaration for the meeting, circulated by the Czech EU presidency last week, says that political difficulties remain and declines to mention any upgrade timetable.

"The objective is to cover the position of those member states who want to implement the upgrade and those who think that now is not the time," an EU diplomat familiar with the text told this website.

"We freeze the upgrade, but we don't say that we freeze the upgrade."

The commission's delay in putting forward the Action Plan has also thrown a spanner in the works. With just three weeks left to go to the Lieberman meeting, EU states and Israel would hardly have enough time to approve a new plan - a detailed, 20-plus page document - even if Ms Ferrero-Waldner suddenly put one out.

The existing EU-Israel Action Plan expired in April, leaving the pair in limbo in terms of a common reform agenda. The old plan could be renewed for a year, but the move would effectively put off the upgrade until 2010.

Meanwhile, debate inside Brussels is beginning to get personal.

A diplomat from one of the pro-Israeli EU countries told EUobserver that Ms Ferrero-Waldner's political views are linked to her relationship with the late Austrian president Kurt Waldheim and her work in the UN in the 1990s. Mr Waldheim's reputation is tainted by his activities as a Wehrmacht officer during World War II.

"She spent all her time in the UN getting close to the Arab delegations and that's where all this comes from," the EU diplomat said.

Ms Ferrero-Waldner's office said there is "no link whatsoever" between the commissioner and Mr Waldheim, except that they were both in the conservative OVP party.


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