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The offer on the table – EU-Israel relations


The offer on the table
By Benita Ferrero-Waldner

Ha’aretz, 13 April 2009

Fifty years ago, Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, dispatched an ambassador to Brussels, to establish Israel’s diplomatic relations with the predecessor organizations to the European Union. In so doing, she displayed a strategic foresight shared by few others: Not even all the future members of the EU were represented in Brussels at that time. And her vision has proved right.

With almost 500 million citizens, the EU today is one of the world’s biggest markets. It is Israel’s largest customer for exports and its second largest source of imports. As Israel’s new government settles into office, then, it’s inevitable that people are asking how EU-Israel relations will develop.

Our cooperation today is extensive. Israel is in the vanguard of the EU’s policy to deepen relations with its neighbors – the European Neighborhood Policy – and is an active participant in our research & development program. New jobs and lower prices are expected to result from agriculture and aviation agreements. And contact between Europeans and Israelis is ever increasing, thanks to exchange programs for students and academics.

During the tenure of Israel’s last government, the EU and Israel were discussing significantly upgrading bilateral relations. We believe we have a lot in common, so we embraced that idea, offering more possibilities for Israel’s participation in EU programs and activities. A new policy paper outlining our priorities for the years to come could quickly become reality.

That offer still stands. For it to be taken up and pursued, however, we will need to be sure that we are working with the same terms of reference. For Europeans, the context of EU-Israel relations remains the same: work for a prosperous, secure and peaceful Middle East, with an independent, viable and democratic Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

There are many who wish to spoil that vision: The EU understands Israel’s concerns about Iran’s unconstructive role, and we will make all necessary efforts to convince Iran that a stable, peaceful and prosperous Middle East is in everybody’s interest. Security is key. But Israeli citizens’ absolute right to live in peace and security can only be achieved if the Palestinian Authority’s security capabilities are improved.

Consolidating the rule of law in the areas under Palestinian control and further professionalizing the Palestinian civil police are objectives that are vital for Israel’s future. For this reason, the EU has been providing financial assistance to train police, judges and prosecutors, and improve the effectiveness of law enforcement.

The EU, as Israel’s partner and friend, expects the new Israeli government to help implement the vision of a two-state solution. Recent activities intended to create new facts on the ground in and around Jerusalem run counter to this vision. Only a negotiated settlement will bring security and end the violence. Living up to past agreements, including those made in the context of multilateral forums, is essential.

In addition, we need visible evidence of the new government’s seriousness in pursuing the path of peace. Undermining the viability of a negotiated settlement, in particular by expanding illegal settlements and security perimeters, is unhelpful. As is holding a population of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza hostage for the irresponsible acts of a militant minority.

The EU has been working hard and devoting considerable resources (around 500 million Euros per year from the Commission, and double that amount from the EU as a whole) to support the peace process and give Israel a reliable and serious partner for peace. Building the nucleus of a future state and improving the daily lives of Palestinians gives people hope. And hope is the only effective approach to fighting extremism.

We have gone to great lengths to guarantee that our aid reaches the intended beneficiaries and no others, measures that have included well designed and tested channels for its delivery. Yet we have a problem. The subsistence allowances we pay to the poorest in Gaza are blocked. Why? Because the Israeli government doesn’t allow sufficient cash to enter Gaza. This undermines our entire strategy. If it continues, people who depend on these allowances for survival will have no choice but to look for alternatives. Illegal activities will increase, and our good work with the PA on better supervision and better control standards (which is in everyone’s interest) will be undone.

Blocking crossings goes further of course. Gazans have the right to clean drinking water, electricity and food. Israel has an obligation to ensure Palestinians can assert these rights. Immediate, unconditional, sustained and predictable opening of the crossings to and from Gaza is essential.

The EU has proven itself a reliable partner for Israel – attentive to its concerns, and accommodating of its practical requests. We are committed to finding peace and security for the Israeli and the Palestinian people, who have suffered violence for far too long. And we are taking all practical steps we can to help.

Israel has had the good fortune to have had visionary leaders, such as Golda Meir. We deeply appreciate that, and are convinced that a solution to our immediate difficulty can easily be found. And we strongly hope that the new Israeli government can be a reliable partner, with which we can work together for peace. After all, as Golda Meir herself put it, “I never did anything alone. Whatever was accomplished, was accomplished collectively.”

Benita Ferrero-Waldner is European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy.

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