The day Europe got Israel’s attention

Responding to the EU’s decision to limit all joint projects at the Green Line, Prime Minister Netanyahu displayed a confrontational attitude, vowing not to let anyone ‘harm’ the settlers.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Called the EU to deal with Syria and Iran, rather than Israel  (Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Called the EU to deal with Syria and Iran, rather than Israel  (Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO)

 

UPDATE: This post has been updated with clarifications from an EU source regarding the nature of the new guidelines. Read the full guidelines here

The European Union’s decision to limit all joint projects with Israel beyond the pre-1967 borders accomplished what all of President Obama’s speeches and Secretary of State Kerry’s diplomatic missions have failed to – it put the occupation back as the top story on the Israeli agenda.

The new European guidelines – UPDATE: the exact term is Commission Notice – which were revealed by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid this morning, will demand that any agreement with an Israeli institution include an article limiting activities beyond the pre-1967 borders. The guidelines allow European involvement with Israeli institutions which are based beyond the Green Line – as the Justice Department is, for example – as long as the joint activity doesn’t take place in occupied territory. In accordance with the international community’s longstanding position, the guidelines don’t recognize the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and the surrounding territories, or the Golan Heights.

The non-binding guidelines were delivered to all 28 EU member states on June 30 and they are due to come into effect this Friday in 2014.

UPDATE: The Commission Notice doesn’t mention agreements but rather applies to “EU grants, prizes and programs”. Ariel University, for example, cannot benefit from a European grant, but if a member-state chose to fund it, it can go on doing so. 

Unlike previous warnings and condemnations of settlement construction, which Israelis seem to have gotten used to, this step caught the Israeli public, media and government by surprise (at least part of the reason is that the Foreign Ministry is on strike and the foreign minister position is vacant pending the conclusion of Avigdor Liberman’s trial). All media outlets were quick to post follow-ups to Haaretz‘s story this morning. UPDATE: According to a European source, Israel was informed of the process during all its stages. 

Knesset members and government ministers have been issuing uncoordinated statements throughout the day. Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, himself a settler, called the decision “unfortunate;” Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party was much more blunt, calling the decision “racist” and saying that it “resembles boycotts against Jews in Europe 66 years ago.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party also slammed the European move. “This is a miserable directive, poorly timed, and it sabotages efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the two parties to the negotiating table,’’ said Lapid, whose position on the Palestinian issue is similar to the Likud’s. “The EU directive signals to the Palestinians that there is no international or economic price to be paid for their continuing refusal to return to talks, and causes them to believe that Israel will be forced to capitulate to economic and diplomatic pressure.”

No politician who wants to become prime minister can endorse a decision against Israeli policies, but Lapid’s comments were surprisingly hostile toward the Palestinians and the EU. It could suggest that his political pact with settler leader Naftali Bennet is still holding firm.

Last to comment was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held an emergency meeting with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Bennett to discuss the European guidelines. The unsurprising decision the forum reached was to try and cancel the EU’s guidelines. In a public statement that followed the meeting, Netanyahu displayed a very confrontational attitude:

I will not allow the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the Golan Heights and Jerusalem to be harmed. We will not follow any demands regarding our borders. These issues will be resolved only through direct negotiations.

I would expect those who wish to see peace and stability to deal with this topic only after dealing with a number of more pressing regional issues, like the Syrian civil war or the Iranian race towards nuclear weapon.

Clearly, Netanyahu’s statements were directed more at the conservative public at home than the international community. Still, his aggressive style is telling. Proxies for the prime minister have been claiming for several years that Netanyahu has undergone a genuine change and that he is truly willing to leave his mark in history in the form of a peace agreement. Yet whenever the opportunity presents itself, Netanyahu presents positions that are to the right of the Israeli consensus.

The prime minister could have used the outside pressure to prepare the Israeli public for concessions or at least to win some ground in his political battle with the settler bloc in his government. Instead, he is reciting talking points written for campus activists. Even if he wanted to get the Europeans to change their policies, it doesn’t seem like he is willing to offer them anything in return. Just as it was with the recent decision to appoint Ron Dermer – known for his opposition to the two-state solution – as his envoy to Washington, it seems that there is no new Netanyahu – just the old Netanyahu, older.

It remains to be seen what effect the European decision will actually have on the ground. A lot depends, as always, on European bureaucracy and the individual member states that will need to implement this decision. Every state agency and institution in Israel takes part in the occupation and in the settlement project, so deciding where “legitimate” cooperation ends and the occupation begins is a complicated, if not impossible, act. The guidelines, because of their non-binding nature, could remain as a relatively declarative or symbolic act. But even as such, it will be different from most of those moves that preceded it in one central aspect – it got the Israelis’ attention.

Related:
What’s in the new EU guidelines regarding activities beyond the Green Line?
Can the EU’s settlement exclusion push the U.S. to follow suit?