EU aims to restart Israel with summit – POLITICO

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The EU is seeking to reset its often strained relationship with Israel next week, convening a summit of high-level political figures on Monday for the first time in a decade.

The format of the meeting, known as the EU-Israel Association Council, has been essentially dormant since 2013, when Israel canceled a rally to protest the EU’s stance on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Since then, the two sides have continued to clash over similar issues.

But the exit in 2021 of radical Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opened the door to the current rapprochement. His replacement, Yair Lapid, who also serves as foreign minister, has embraced a two-state solution with Palestine – a position more in line with the approach of many EU countries, although several countries are still expected to express their disapproval of Israel’s Palestinian policies. In Monday. Brussels is also keen to shore up Israel’s energy supplies amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Lapid is expected to attend Monday’s board meeting.

« There is great hope that the upcoming Association Council between the EU and Israel will bring… a new wind in our relations, » Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský told POLITICO last week. United Nations General Assembly, expressing optimism that development will be one. of the main achievements of the Czech six-monthly rotating presidency of the EU.

Yet getting an EU consensus on one of the world’s most contentious conflicts will not be easy.

Countries like Ireland and Sweden have traditionally taken a more pro-Palestinian stance – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stopped in Dublin for a meeting with the Irish Prime Minister earlier this month en route to the annual meeting of the ‘UN. At the other end of the spectrum, Israel has strong supporters within the EU. Hungary, for example, is a staunch ally with economic and ideological ties forged over the years between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Netanyahu.

Before the EU-Israel Council disappeared, it served for more than a decade as a forum for officials to meet regularly and discuss these issues. Now, as the council is set to be relaunched, member states are cobbled together in an official statement that must satisfy the range of views regarding EU-Israel relations.

Finding a common language could mean weeks of fighting over a single word as behind-the-scenes deals are struck to appease the myriad interests at stake. Palestinian officials are also watching closely, demanding not to be left out of an engagement. similar diplomacy with Brussels.

The complicated role of the EU in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has played out in many controversies this year alone.

This spring, the European Commission was forced to delay funding for the Palestinian Authority because of the content of school textbooks, which critics said included anti-Israel incitement to violence.

The decision to freeze the funds was taken by the Hungarian Commissioner for EU Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi. As POLITICO first reported, 15 countries sent a letter to the Commission in April lambasting the decision. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen finally announced that the money would be disbursed during a visit to the Palestinian city of Ramallah in July.

European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivier Varhelyi | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

New tensions with Tel Aviv emerged following an Israeli raid in July on the offices of Palestinian NGOs.

Israel had accused the groups – some of which received funding from EU countries – of being terrorist organizations. But many EU countries were not convinced.

In a joint statement at the time, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden all slammed Israel, saying it failed to provide « substantial information » to justify the raids. The bloc reiterated these “deep concerns” in August after fresh Israeli raids against civil society groups.

Another dynamic affecting EU relations with Israel is the continent’s energy problems. As Europe scrambles to find alternative sources of Russian gas, strengthening energy ties with Israel is one possible answer.

During a visit to Israel in June, von der Leyen signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel and Egypt to boost gas exports. The EU is also Israel’s largest trade market and accounts for about a third of Israel’s total trade.

But while economic imperatives partly explain the new surge in engagement with Israel, long-term observers say the awareness also reflects a new willingness to engage with Tel Aviv after Lapid came to power this summer. Lapid took office in a power-sharing deal with Naftali Bennett, who held the post for a year before him.

« I think it’s a real change, » said Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, who heads the Israel-Europe program at the Mitvim Institute, an Israeli think tank. “The change in tone was brought about by Lapid, who shares much of the EU’s normative position on the liberal democratic world order. It is now much more positive than under Netanyahu’s government, even though Bennett and now the Lapid government are not advancing the peace process.

Sion-Tzidkiyahu said mutually beneficial scenarios help replace « megaphone diplomacy » with closer dialogue.

« Disagreements over contentious issues such as Palestinian or Iranian will not go away, but perhaps there is now a better understanding of each side’s concerns, » she said.

Lipavský, the Czech Foreign Minister, is aware of the concerns of some EU countries regarding the actions of the Israeli government in the West Bank and towards the Palestinians.

« We need to discuss [these concerns] openly, but I don’t think one question should block debate on others,” he said.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen poses for photos with Israeli Yair Lapid | Pool photo by Maya Alleruzzo/AFP via Getty Images

Officially, the EU supports the two-state solution which sees a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel – a vision also shared by the US. But making that prospect a reality seems further afield than ever.

Sven Koopmans, the EU’s special representative for the Middle East peace process, wrote earlier this month that all parties must help identify ways to resolve the man-made conflict.

“The current situation is increasingly seen as a structural human rights problem, in which Israel has the upper hand,” he wrote in Israeli media outlet Haaretz. “This negatively affects the way the world views Israel and carries long-term risks. It shouldn’t be like this.

When it comes to restarting the peace process, Sion-Tzidkiyahu is not confident.

“Under the current political circumstances of the Palestinian Authority and Israel, such a development is not expected,” she said. « At most, the EU can press for Israel to take more practical steps to improve the condition of the Palestinians. »

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