Israel wants revisions on guidelines that forbid funds from going to illegal settlements.
Last week, EU and Israeli negotiators failed to agree on new funding rules for Israeli participation in Horizon 2020, a €80 billion (about $107 billion) European research funding program that will run from January 2014 for seven years. Israel says it will not take part under the new guidelines, published by the European Commission last July, which oblige its firms and institutions to sign documents saying EU money will not fund activities on occupied Palestinian land.
Under a bilateral protocol signed in 2008, Israel is allowed to participate in some of the EU’s programs: it contributes financially and in turn this allows its representatives to take part as observers in the programs’ management committees. The State of Israel has already cooperated for a number of years in EU research programs and Horizon 2020 (2014-2020) is the prolongation of the EU Seventh Framework Program for Research (2007-2013). The signing of a new agreement with Israel to ensure its continued participation was supposed to be a mere formality. That is, until something unexpected came up.
The sand in the gears came from the “Guidelines on funding of Israeli entities in the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967” adopted by the European Union in July 2013 and developed in furtherance of the EU Foreign Affairs Council position agreed on Dec. 10, 2012, which stated:
“The EU expresses its commitment to ensure that – in line with international law – all agreements between the State of Israel and the European Union must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.”
The new rules serve to reiterate EU’s longstanding position that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and that the EU does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied territories, “irrespective of their legal status under domestic Israeli law,” as a statement by the European Commission specifies. They aim at preventing the participation of settlement-based companies and organizations in EU programs.
Growing EU impatience
While this has been the EU’s position for years, the guidelines – as well as the ongoing debate about the labeling of products originating from West Bank settlements – seem to demonstrate that the EU is becoming increasingly impatient with Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the territories it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six-Day War or the June War) – the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.
The move has made headlines in Israel and was greeted critically by Israeli politicians across the ideological spectrum. The feeling is that for the first time, an international organization has taken a real measure that goes beyond the usual verbal criticism of Israel’s activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Israelis have thus deployed a large communication campaign to counter it.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, reacted angrily to the decision, declaring: “We will not accept any external dictates regarding our borders.” Israel has intensively lobbied EU foreign ministers and the U.S. Department of State to make Brussels postpone the measure. During a meeting with EU foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the European Union to postpone the guidelines, arguing that they were not productive for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinians discussions.
The argument that there is a contradiction between the peace negotiations and the guidelines rings a bit hollow, however. Any sustainable peace must be based in international law, according to which settlements are illegal because “states may not deport or transfer parts of their own civilian population into a territory they occupy.” In other words, the guidelines simply translate the fulfillment of the EU obligation to comply with international law.
On the other hand, the EU move also received wide support, including from within Israel itself. In a letter to EU foreign ministers, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions insists the rules be maintained:
“We are a group of Israeli citizens active against our government’s policies of racism, expropriation and occupation. It has come to our attention that the subject of the Guidelines […] may be discussed during the informal meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on September 6th. […] We urge the participants in the forthcoming meeting to uphold the Guidelines and the conclusions of the Council of Foreign Affairs of December 2012 and to insist that all future agreements with Israel should contain provisions accurately reflecting their content.”
Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc, also sent an open letter to the European Union foreign ministers calling on them to persist with their outspoken opposition to settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. Additionally, more than 600 Israeli intellectuals, senior academics and leading artists sent a petition to President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso in support of the European Union guidelines:
“We the undersigned, support the European Union recommendation to its member states, to avoid signing agreements with Israeli organizations and companies if they are active, directly or indirectly, in the occupied territories over the green line of June 4, 1967.”
New settlements announced
On the European side, 15 high-ranking EU officials and politicians have sent a letter to EU foreign ministers to urge them not to bow to Israel and US requests to alter the new rules on settlement funding:
“With great concern we have taken note of recent calls to delay, modify or even suspend the European Commission Guidelines of Israeli entities in the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, developed in furtherance of the clear EU foreign affairs council position” […] “we urge you to uphold this commitment by supporting the guidelines and their full application by EU institutions, notably in regard to the ongoing negotiations about Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020.”
Signatories include former EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, former Spanish foreign minister and former EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process Miguel Moratinos, former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine, former EU Commissioner for competition and former Director-General of the World Trade Organization Peter Sutherland, among others.
Israel dismissed the letter, arguing that “the people who signed it are no longer relevant and do not have control or say in the EU decision-making process,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared. Last August, the Israeli government approved the construction of nearly 1,200 new homes in Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian areas. Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel said 793 apartments would be built in East Jerusalem and 394 in several large West Bank settlements.
The announcement by the Israeli government came three days before a round of direct peace talks in Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians negotiators. Israeli leftist activists published statements expressing their frustration with Ariel:
“Beyond the act itself, which is meant to create facts on the ground and perpetuate the occupation, the timing is aimed to undermine the peace talks.”
The issue of settlement-building has previously halted the direct peace talks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had also insisted he would not resume negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze, but relented during mediation by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
About 500,000 Jewish Israelis live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.