Israel should harness Europe's good will, not throw it back in their face

published: 27.08.2013

It doesn't take much of an effort to discover that the European Union is by far Israel's largest trading partner. The figure for 2011 amounts to 29.4 billion Euro with 2012 numbers expected to rise to 40 billion Euros. Europe is Israel's major source of imports and the second largest market for our exports. Israeli scientific institutions and the high tech industry have benefited from millions of Dollars in grants under the Framework Program for Research and Technical Development. Medical and cultural institutions, music, the arts, cinema, have all been supported by Europe collectively as well as by individual countries.

All of this, however, does not seem to impress Dr. Emmanuel Navon who reminds us of inter-European rivalries and rifts, only to conclude, in a fashion reminiscent of statements made by our former undiplomatic foreign minister – that the Europeans should mind their own business.

Well, it looks like for the first time, after years of criticizing the Israeli settlement policy, the Europeans have translated their concerns into action. In the end of June, the European Commission circulated new guidelines for trade with Israel, forbidding any funding of Israeli institutions that operate beyond the 1967 borders.

European countries – as well as the United States – have never recognized the Israeli occupation and hence their decision, after years of warnings, that agreements will apply only to Israeli territories within the 1967 green line. Since the announcement came out on the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry's sixth visit to our region, geared to re-launch the peace process, it is difficult to presume that the timing or the substance were a coincidence. To the best of our knowledge, the US Administration did nothing to dissuade the Europeans from "upgrading " their policy....

Contrary to Emmanuel Navon's understanding, this step -- that increased European credibility not only in Israel, but throughout the region -- was taken very seriously by the Israeli Cabinet and by its prime minister, because Israel has much to loose.

Israel's immediate response was to send Europe to leave it alone and "deal with the Syrian crisis." Though it might have been dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction, our Prime Minister chose to give up the 900 million Euros in European grant for research, shooting ourselves (and our scientists ) in our own proverbial leg.

Europe has never been the main actor in our area, but, as an immediate neighbor, it has a vested interest in ensuring its security and stability. It has tried to do so by launching the Barcelona process, the Euro-Med Partnership, the Union for the Mediterranean and at the same time by negotiating bilateral Association Agreements with some of our neighbors. Europe attaches great importance to finding a just solution and reaching a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. To that end, it has invested numerous efforts, including financial aid to help build the Palestinian economy and subsidizing government institutions in the Palestinian Authority. Europe also supports initiatives through its involvement in the Quartet, and through the role of the Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process .

While it is true that it is difficult to forge a common policy among the EU's 28 member states, on the issue of Palestinian statehood and on the question of settlements there is general and unanimous agreement. Even some of Israel's closest friends and supporters, such as Germany, have voiced criticism on that.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why, at times, Europe carries more weight in our region than the US.

It goes without saying that any given country's foreign policy is guided by interests. Accusing Europeans of adhering to their principles only as long as their interests are not affected, as Navon does, seems self-righteous. Europeans have paid a heavy price for their past follies, including colonialism. Instead of admonishing them, we should perhaps learn a lesson or two from their experience. Instead of castigating them, it would be better to harness their good will and their clout in the cause of peace in our region.

Colette Avital is a former Israeli ambassador and former member of Knesset

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