Under pressure, a strong EU-Israel relationship faces uncertain future | Ben White writes for Middle East Monitor

Yesterday Ben White wrote an article for Middle East Monitor (MEMO) on the future of EU-Israel cooperation in trade and industry. We’ve reproduced part of the article below, which you can read in full on the MEMO website, here.

To find out more about the new edition of Ben’s best-selling book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto, 2009; 2014), check out our book video trailer below, or click on the cover image…

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Ben White

Last week, EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen warned on Israeli television that the country would face “increasing isolation” if the peace process collapsed, echoing remarks he made in January about a “price to pay” in terms of boycott and divestment initiatives by European companies. Yet last week also saw the official launch of Israel’s participation in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme, making it “eligible to compete for €77 billion worth of industrial research grants over seven years”. This juxtaposition is a useful picture of current EU-Israel relations, with close cooperation continuing even as strains have emerged in the context of a troubled peace process and civil society pressure.

Euros in their eyes

The cooperation between the EU and Israel is deep, broad-ranging, and financially significant for both parties: the 2012 upgrade of relations, for example, affected 60 different areas of cooperation. That same year, the total bilateral trade in goods was worth just under €30 billion, with 35% of Israeli imports coming from the EU, and 27% of Israeli exports going to the EU.

Aside from scientific research within the Framework Programme, when it comes to technological innovation the EU sees it very much in its own interest to have close links with the country’s hi-tech sector. As European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said during a speech at Haifa University in 2012: “A continent such as Europe, that invests heavily in innovation, needs to have close links with a ‘start-up nation’, like Israel.”

In 2012, Israel exported €1.16 billion in military-related technology to Europe, with Israeli organisations participating in 46 projects within the European Security Research Programme. Defence industry giant Elbit, for example, is a partner in ongoing EU projects “totalling €29.2 million”. On the eve of Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza in November 2012, the EU sponsored an Israeli weapons fair.
Yet aside from the obvious financial benefits, there are also those in the EU supportive of close ties with Israel for ideological reasons. A recent report co-published by the Friends of Israel and Henry Jackson Society portrays “the relationship between the European Union and the State of Israel” as “based on common values”, with the latter described as “a vibrant democracy that treasures the core Western values of human rights and rule of law”.

Then there is the role played by pro-Israel high-ranking officials and lobby groups like European Friends of Israel (EFI) – with an overlap between the two. One example is Antonio Tajani, Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship, who, in the words of Brussels-based journalist David Cronin, “has acted as Israel’s best buddy in the EU hierarchy”. Last October, Tajani – who used to be on the board of EFI – led “a delegation of 65 companies and industry association from 17 EU Member States” to Israel.

Reading between the guidelines

Ben White

Recently, however, there have been some undeniable bumps in the road. The year in review for EU-Israel relations in 2013 was to a large extent dominated by the furore over the EU’s publication of guidelines “on the eligibility of Israeli entities and their activities in the occupied territories for grants, prizes and financial instruments”.

The guidelines were not ‘new’ – they clarified pre-existing policy and closed loopholes that enabled EU money to go to West Bank settlement-based entities. The guidelines do not, however, prohibit EU grants for entities that have activities on both sides of the Green Line, so as long as the funding in question is designated for a project inside pre-’67 Israel.

In response to the guidelines, Israel – to quote an EU official speaking to me in Brussels recently – “went nuclear”. The official, who has an intimate working knowledge of the guidelines and their publication, said he was surprised by the reaction: “we informed the Israeli embassy here in Brussels and two days later it appears in [Israeli newspaper] Haaretz”.

The official suggested that the response was so sharp because the EU was not simply confirming its political position but was using legal instruments to defend it. Thus while a “light” measure, it was still “a precedent”, he noted. He also pointed out that last summer saw the EU publish two other similar items: one related to marketing standards for fruits and vegetables, and one on the certification of organic products – both containing territorial aspects.

Yet EU officials were keen to emphasise that issuing the guidelines was closely linked to a desire for further cooperation with Israel – a case of “clearing an irritant from the table”, as one put it to me. A senior European External Action Service (EEAS) official claimed that the guidelines were about “facilitating cooperation by removing a lack of clarity when agreements are made”. He suggested that Palestinian officials’ positive response to the guidelines was because they naively believed everything they read in Israeli newspapers.

Some involved in civil society lobbying of the EU concur with this assessment. One experienced NGO policy officer made an analogy to the sex-education policy ABC – Abstinence, be faithful, use a condom. “The guidelines are ‘C’, use a condom – you can have sex with Israel, but be safe”. This approach, she said, “is based on the EU’s problematic distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Israel”, referring to the territorial aspect of the guidelines.

Others involved in Palestinian advocacy, however, are more positive. One Brussels-based campaigner told me that the EU’s decision to push ahead with the guidelines was, at least in part, a response to pressure from civil society organisations. There is also, she suggested, a fear that the two-state solution is in grave danger, and that the move should be understood as reflecting this fear of no deal being achieved.

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