Israel has booked several successes in the European Union last week despite the controversial annexation issue which might create tensions between the two sides if the plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) is implemented.
First of all, following ongoing and extensive diplomatic efforts led by Israel’s Ambassador to the EU, Ronny Leshno–Yaar, along with other Israeli ambassadors based in Europe as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, the European Parliament has ratified the ‘’Open Skies’’ agreement between the EU and Israel. The parliament voted at an overwhelming majority of 437 ‘yes’ and 102 ‘no’ to ratify the aviation agreement which has been in place since 2013. The agreement has led to a substantial decrease in air fares, alongside a significant increase in the number of tourists visiting Israel. It has also provided opportunities for Israeli tourists to fly to an increased variety of European destinations. The final ratification of this agreement guarantees the continuation of competition in the aviation sector and low air fares.
The vote took place after a 7-year process, during which each individual state’s parliament voted in favor of ratifying the agreement.
‘’The final ratification of this agreement is an important expression of the relationship Israel has with the EU. It will contribute significantly to the rehabilitation of Israel’s tourism and aviation sectors,’’ commented Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
The ratification occurred despite attempts by far-left and Green Members of the European Parliament to adjourn a vote and use it as a ‘’weapon’’ against a possible Israeli decision on annexation. This attempt was defeated because most of the MEPs finally understood that cooperation with Israel in various sectors (tourism but also trade, healthcare, research, technology, education….) must not be linked to the political issues on which the EU and Israel disagree. Sanctions are not the best way to deal with a controversial issue. Constructive engagement with the new Israeli government was the option chosen by the European Parliament instead of threats. This is certainly a positive sign.
The second success for Jerusalem in Brussels was the decision – for the first time- of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to cancel its funding of a Palestinian NGO refusing to sign the anti-terror clause. The NGO called Badil or Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, had secured €1.7 million (about $1.9 million) for a three-year project called “Mobilizing for Justice in Jerusalem.”
But in a letter the European Commission informed the group that due to its refusal to sign Article 1.5 of Annex II of the “General conditions applicable to European Union-financed grant contracts for external actions,” it was obligated to “consider your application no longer valid.’’
Article 1.5 was introduced to the EU contracts with NGOs in 2019. It stipulates that grant beneficiaries must ensure no funds go to groups listed as terrorist organizations.
The EU terror blacklist, formally called the “list of EU restrictive measures,” includes several Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Israel has repeatedly urged the EU (as well as EU member states) to avoid funding NGOs linked to terror organisations or whom officials have also positions in terror groups, producing reports showing these links.
The Foreign Ministry last month summoned the EU’s ambassador to Israel after the publication of a letter in which the EU representative in the West Bank and Gaza assured officially the Palestinians that membership in or affinity to a terrorist organization does not automatically prevent a person from being eligible to participate in EU-funded programs.
The Israeli protest to this ”clarification” led European Commission Oliver Varhelyi, in charge of the EU’s Neighborhood Policy, to ‘’act immediately’’, as he put it, and investigate the matter. ‘’As long as there are EU funds, this cannot happen, this will not be tolerated and if it happens, it will have to be rectified and I will see myself that it is done and delivered,’’ he said last month. The decision of the Commission to cancel the funding grant to Badil is probably a result of this investigation…
Is the EU’s standing towards Israel changing with the new Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in office ? The EU reaction to a possible decision by the Israeli government to apply by July 1 sovereignty to parts of the West bank – will be a test case.
Addressing last week a debate in the European Parliament on this issue, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “We emphatically demand that Israel refrain from any unilateral decision that will lead to the annexation of any occupied Palestinian territory. This would be a severe violation of international law, and it would necessarily have significant repercussions for the close relationship that we now have with Israel.”
But eventual EU measures against Israel (political or economic) would require consensus among all 27 member states and it is no secret that Hungary and Austria, but also other member states would veto any sanctions and rather call for a dialogue with Israel ”the only real democracy in the region.” The EU has so far refrained from threatening specific sanctions…. which is already a positive sign.