Since the arrival of Gabi Ashkenazi as Israel’s Foreign Minister there has been a change of atmosphere regarding EU-Israel relations. The tone has become more positive especially since Israel signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein.
Ashkenazi participated in a meeting with all 27 EU member states in Berlin at the end of August. This was his first trip abroad since his nomination in May. Also a sign of the ”change” in Israel’s perception of the European Union which was often criticized in Jerusalem for its ”biased” position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Following the announcement of the agreement between Israel and the UAE, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell welcomed the move which he described as “fundamental” for the stabilization of the region as a whole. The EU, he added, was ready to work together with its regional and international partners toward a “comprehensive and lasting peace for the entire region.”
He did it again in September in his name when he issued a statement after a phone call he had with Gabi Ashkenazi three days after the formal signing of the normalization accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrein at the White House.
”High Representative Borrell recalled EU’s support for the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and confirmed readiness to work to foster regional cooperation for a peaceful, stable and prosperous Middle East,” said the EU external service statement.
Borrell and Ashkenazi ‘’exchanged views on the issues in the bilateral agenda between the EU and Israel and discussed latest developments in the region. Both agreed on a shared, mutual interest in intensifying bilateral cooperation,’’ it said.
Of course the fact that under the normalization agreements with the two Gulf states, Israel agreed to ‘’suspend’’ its plan to extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, played a major role in this new atmosphere between the EU and Israel as the issue of West Bank settlements had been a stumbling block between the two parties for years.
Borrell has welcomed this part of the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. He tweeted: “Suspending annexation is a positive step, plans should now be abandoned altogether. EU hopes for resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a two-state solution based on international agreed parameters.’’
Will this process lead to the resumption of the EU-Israel Association Council, a body that has not been convened for the last 12 years because of disagreements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ?
The Association Agreement signed between Israel and the EU in 1995 is the legal basis defining relations between the sides. It establishes an Association Council, which is meant to ensure a dialogue and improve relations between the parties. The Council usually gathered the Israeli Foreign Minister and the EU Foreign Ministers.
Borrell is said to be strongly in favour of restarting the Association Council and is trying to convince member states of its merit.
EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi also stressed “the need to seize this positive momentum for EU-Israel bilateral relations, including organizing an Association Council soon.’’
But according to Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU and NATO, who is currently senior research fellow at the prestigious Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, this is not yet on the table. ‘’Europeans, mostly France, is still insisting on some sort of a statement by Israel that the annexation is out. I don’t see such a statement coming out from Jerusalem,’’ he told an online press briefing organized by Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA).
He added: ‘’Jerusalem is quiet happy with the current situation. There is no discussion within the Israeli public opinion and political echelon on the annexation issue. No one is discussing it. Because the agreement with the UAE and other countries sent the file of annexation to somewhere in the archives for the time being.’’
But Eran thinks that it is a very important issue for Europe to decide how they want to manager their relations with Israel in case of a second Trump administration or a possible Biden administration ‘’which in this case will complicate the EU’s position because if they want to reopen a political dialogue with Israel they will have to come with some sort of an answer on how to proceeed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’’
If there is no change in the White House, the EU will continue to be marginalized by Washington, he noted. ‘’But if there is a Biden administration there is a realistic possibility of reopening of a dialogue between Washington and Brussels over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’’ ‘’If a new administration says to Europe: ‘let’s open a dialogue on certain issues, on China, Rusia and the Middle East and Washington suggests some sort of a different paradigm, I think Europe will consider it positively,’’ said Eran.
Then the question for the EU will be how to manage its relations with Israel…