EU upgrading relations with Israel by the back door – a blow to justice

When the Foreign Affairs Council issued its conclusions on the Middle East on 14 May 2012 it spelled out its concern that the two-state-solution (which is one of the key cornerstones of EU policy with regard to Israel and Palestine) as follows:

The viability of a two-state-solution must be maintained. The EU expresses deep concern about developments on the ground which threaten to make a two-state solution impossible:

  • the marked acceleration of settlement construction following the end of the 2010 moratorium, the recent decision of the government of Israel regarding the status of some settlements outposts as well as the proposal to relocate settlers from Migron within the occupied Palestinian territory, while all outposts erected since March 2001 should be dismantled, according to the Roadmap.
  • in East-Jerusalem the ongoing evictions and house demolitions, changes to the residency status of Palestinians, the expansion of Givat Hamatos and Har Homa, and the prevention of peaceful Palestinian cultural, economic, social or political activities.
  • the worsening living conditions of the Palestinian population in Area C and serious limitations for the PA to promote the economic development of Palestinian communities in Area C, as well as plans of forced transfer of the Bedouin communities, in particular from the wider E1 area.
  • the risk of jeopardising the major achievements of the Palestinian Authority in statebuilding if the current financial difficulties are not addressed by a common effort of the PA, Israel and donors.

Given these words, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the European Union, in its policy towards the government of Israel, would not ease trade relations until at least some of these concerns are addressed.

The trade (and other) relationship between the EU and Israel is governed by an Association Agreement which was concluded in 2000. Discussions about the upgrade of this agreement – by which is meant the easing of any remaining barriers to trade – has been discussed from time to time but any upgrade was frozen after Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2009.

But as with all such international treaties, there is always wriggle room. Here, the wriggle room relates to a whole raft of things that can be progressed within the terms of the existing agreement but which are, in fact, upgrades and thus in direct opposition to the spirit, if not the letter of the freezing of the upgrade which took place in 2009.

Is the EU justified in exploiting the wriggle room?  That, of course, depends, on where you are standing and what your perspective and principles are. Article 2 of the Agreement says:

Relations between the Parties, as well as all the provisions of the Agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal and international policy and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.

If that is a principle one wants to be committed to, then clearly there seems little scope for arguing for wriggle room. If trade trumps everything, then the situation is not so clear. The Israeli government seems clear on both where they stand and where the EU stands if their spokesperson, Paul Hirschson (as quoted in the Guardian on 23 July 2012) is to be believed when he says: “Both sides would suffer terribly if we start throwing eggs at each other. With Greece and Spain imploding, it doesn’t make sense for the EU to do anything to damage trade with anyone at this point.”

So the EU is apparently using whatever wriggle-room they think they have and fly in the face of their own conclusions when they meet with the Israeli Foreign Minister on 24 July 2012 and upgrade the relationship in a whole raft of measures all of which are considered technical and thus permissible under the Association Agreement as it stands.

It is astonishing to say the least that this move comes just 2 months after the very critical conclusions quoted above were agreed by the same EU Foreign Ministers. Apparently, according to sources (quoted in the Guardian but not named) the request for these improvements in the trade relationships came from the Israeli government. Normally, if there is a negotiation between parties – especially if one party has been critical of the other – there would be a trade-off. You give me something in return for me giving you what you want. To put it into the present context: The Israeli Government wants the EU to remove obstacles impeding their access to European government-controlled markets; the EU might have thought that in return it could have got a binding commitment to stop settlement building. But this quid pro quo seems not even to be on the agenda.

So who is talking to the Israeli Foreign Minister about all this? Normally, such discussions would be led by Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Vice President of the European Commission. She has been very vocal in her condemnation of the expansion of settlements during her time in office (since December 2009). QCEA has published an analysis of her words in this matter in January 2012 and asked then:

A Question to the External Action Service

Given the extent of the concern, and the many statements to this effect, what is the EEAS intending to do to back up its policy with effective action to prevent any trade between any business, public authority, or individual in the European Union with the illegal settlements?

Clearly, 6 months on, the EEAS and Catherine Ashton are not intending to do anything to back up their policy in this regard. On the contrary, they will fly in the face of their own policy and bind the European Union into an ever closer association with a country which in the view of the EU Foreign Ministers, in the view of Catherine Ashton herself and in the view of the international community (represented by the Middle East Quartet and others) is illegally occupying the Palestinian Territories and putting every increasing obstacles to peace in the way of international efforts to contribute to a solution.

Apart from the fact that this EU policy approach (the actions, not the words) is a moral outrage, it is also completely illogical and incompatible with the stated policy.

So what does Catherine Ashton do? Clearly, she must be very uncomfortable about all this. Does she challenge the Israeli Government? Does she challenge the Foreign Ministers of the EU? Does she insist that EU Foreign Policy must be coherent? No, not a bit of it. She delegates the meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister to the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cyprus – currently in the rotating presidency of the EU. Words fail us.

The only thing left is a concerted effort from citizens to act: If the EU is not willing to act; if the EU is not willing to at least not make the situation worse every day, then we must act: we must stop any cooperation with the illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories. That means: every time you go shopping: check where your chosen goods come from. If there is any risk they have been produced in the illegal settlements: ask yourself whether you can live with purchasing them knowing that you are helping to undermine any credible possibility of peace.

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About Martina Weitsch

Martina worked for Quaker Council for European Affairs as one of two Joint Representatives from 2002 to October 2012. Her main areas of work were the EU role in Palestine/Israel, EU peacebuilding, conflict prevention and crisis management, EU finances, democratic accountability and relations with the European Investment Bank.
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