Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Q&A: EU Stepping Closer to Israel, Regardless

David Cronin interviews European Commissioner for External Relations BENITA FERRERO-WALDNER

BRUSSELS, Jul 30 2009 (IPS) - Israel enjoys closer relations with the European Union than almost any other foreign country – and work on deepening ties with Israel continues, even as its oppression of the Palestinian people worsens.

European Commissioner for External Relations BENITA FERRERO-WALDNER Credit:

European Commissioner for External Relations BENITA FERRERO-WALDNER Credit:

Israel was the first of the EU’s neighbours to take part in the bloc’s multi-billion euro programmes dedicated to scientific research and enterprise development, and has been intimately involved in the Galileo satellite navigation scheme.

In December 2008, EU governments unanimously agreed to further upgrade their ties with Israel by paving the way for its integration into the EU’s single market for goods and services, as well as strengthening its bonds with the EU’s political and military structures. The decision was taken even though Israel had broken a ceasefire with Hamas a month earlier – on the day Barack Obama was elected U.S. president – by launching an attack on Gaza.

Initially, both sides had agreed that the upgrade should take effect in summer 2009. But the Israeli offensive against Gaza in December and January meant that other issues had to be prioritised. As a result, the upgrade process has been temporarily delayed.

Excerpts from the interview with Ferrero-Waldner on where relations now stand:

IPS: During a recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, I met some human rights activists who were sharply critical of the European Union’s decision last year to ‘upgrade’ its relations with Israel. The activists felt that the EU was treating Israel as a ‘normal’ industrialised country and not as one state that is illegally occupying the land of another people. What is your response to that criticism? Benita Ferrero-Waldner: The EU has made it clear, on a number of occasions, that the upgrade is not taking place in a vacuum, irrespective of the situation on the ground. The recent decision not to pursue the upgrading at the current point in time, in view of the political environment, bears witness to this. However, this has not changed the commitment of the EU to strengthen bilateral relations with Israel in principle.

IPS: I’ve also heard it said that one of Tzipi Livni’s intentions in pursuing the upgrade when she was Israel’s foreign minister was to make it more difficult for the EU to criticise Israel’s behaviour in the Palestinian territories, at least in public. Her rationale, according to several sources I’ve spoken to in both Brussels and the Middle East, was to create a formal alliance with the EU on the understanding that one friend does not embarrass another friend. Do you agree with this view? BFW: If you had an issue of concern, who would you rather discuss it with, a friend or a person you barely know? The closer a relationship is, the more frequently the parties meet, and the more occasions there are to discuss also themes where you do not see eye to eye. I personally see to it that these occasions for dialogue are well used to relay our most important points of preoccupation.

IPS: You have spoken on a number of occasions about how Israel has impeded delivery of EU-funded aid to the Palestinian territory. Why have you never asked Israel to pay the bill for damage that its defence force has caused to EU-funded projects in the West Bank or Gaza? Do you not have a duty to European taxpayers to seek compensation? BFW: The question of compensation is legally a very complex one. Besides, the records show that the majority of damage was to projects financed by the EU member states, in which case it is up to the member states to decide what legal action to take. The European Commission has sought, and will continue to seek, explanations from the Israeli authorities whenever there are Commission-funded projects which have been destroyed or damaged. But to halt the cycle of destruction and reconstruction, we need progress towards the creation of the future Palestinian state and thus peace in the Middle East.

IPS: It is no secret that EU aid to the Palestinian territories is paying for many things that, under international law, are the responsibility of the occupying power. Do you have any suggestions about how this situation can be rectified? Can the EU help to meet the basic needs of the Palestinians in a way that doesn’t help perpetuate the occupation? BFW: The best suggestion is to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians which would end the occupation. This is the overall aim of EU policy towards the occupied Palestinian territory. This is the main rationale behind our institution-building activities: to prepare the Palestinians to run a state and, finally, take their destiny into their own hands and so to realise their legitimate aspirations.

In the meanwhile, our humanitarian and emergency assistance does not perpetuate the occupation, but rather provides help to the ailing population. This year, for example, we provided more than 200 million euros to contribute to salaries of Palestinian Authority employees, to the fuel costs of the Gaza power plant and to vulnerable families. We gave more than 100 million euros for humanitarian and food aid. Overall, since 2007 the European Commission has been providing approximately 500 million euros to the Palestinians every year.

IPS: Do you accept that the EU’s decision not to deal directly with Hamas has been a mistake and that it may have contributed to widening the divisions between it and its rival Fatah? BFW: I personally don’t think that the growing divisions between Fatah and Hamas, which I am following with great concern, are a result of EU policy. But now we have to focus on the future and find ways to mend this rift. This is why I fully support Egypt’s efforts to achieve (Palestinian) national reconciliation, which will hopefully succeed in the not too distant future.

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