Why the EU shouldn’t amend its new settlement guidelines

This might be remembered as a key moment in determining the future of the occupation. In an effort to preserve the alliance with settlers and maintain its current settlement policies, the government will demand key provisions of the EU guidelines be changed or postponed. 

Catherine Ashton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (European Union / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Catherine Ashton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (European Union / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One of the most important rounds of talks on the future of the territories Israel occupied in 1967 is about to take place – and it’s not the meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators this week.

The Israeli government is seeking to modify the new guidelines set by the European Union, which will forbid cooperation with Israeli institutions that operate beyond the Green Line. A special ministerial panel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decided on Thursday to approach the EU and demand several key amendments in the guidelines before entering any new projects with the Europeans.

The EU’s Commission Notice is due to come into effect on January 1, 2014. One of its first articles states that, “the EU does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty” in any of the territories captured in 1967, including the Golan and East Jerusalem, “irrespective of their legal status under domestic Israeli law.” The EU, therefore, will not enter projects with organizations that are based or operate in the occupied territories. The Israeli party to such projects will need to guarantee that it is not involved in such activities.

The guidelines do not apply to individual states or to government institutions and Israeli individuals, meaning that a person can still reside beyond the Green Line and take part in a joint project. But a University, for example, cannot. You can read the full four-page Commission Notice here.

The guidelines came at an important moment, just as Israel was about to enter the Horizon 2020 scientific program with the EU. Referred to as “the flagship of Israeli-European cooperation,” Horizon 2020 will provide Israel with an estimated 300 million euro support for scientific research, as well as exposure to key markets and projects. Israel is the only non-EU state which was invited to take part in Horizon 2020.

The Netanyahu government is reluctant to sign the cooperation agreement under the new terms for two main reasons: a) it fears future implications regarding the ability of Israeli companies and institutions to operate freely in the West Bank, in the way they have until now; and, b) the government is publicly committed to a policy of settlement expansion, and its electoral majority is based on an alliance with settlers.

The government specifically opposes the clauses that condition loans or grants from the EU on Israeli institutions or companies providing statements or signing articles guaranteeing that they have no direct or indirect connections with groups, institutions and companies in the West Bank. Not wanting to give up European loans and joint projects altogether, the government decided to present its reservation to the EU, and then enter negotiations that would lead to the necessary amendments in the guidelines.

Last week, several Israeli sources repeated the claim that the new guidelines hurt the peace talks.

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It is absolutely vital that the EU holds on to its original decision and not allow major changes in the guidelines or postpone their implementation. It is, in fact, one of those rare moments when the wrong step could have major long-term implications.

The Commission Notice had a profound impact on the Israeli political conversation. In the past, Israelis have learned to accept condemnations of their governments’ settlement activities. The general feeling is that those statements actually reflect a lack of interest in the Palestinian issue. “The world doesn’t care,” was a favorite line with government ministers in recent years, and it was proven right in many instances: when Israel decided to legalize outposts; when a government-appointed committee declared all settlement activities to be lawful under international law; when Israeli cultural institutions began opening branches in the Occupied Territories; when the first University in a settlement was open; when the education minister began a program of school trips to the settlement inside occupied Hebron.

The new guidelines sent shockwaves through the political system, starting a debate over the price Israelis might pay for the occupation. Horizon 2020 – a program very few Israelis knew about – is now making national headlines. The reason is not a sudden interest in science, but the price tag that was attached to a continuing insistence on settlement activities.

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The government knows that the mainstream’s tacit support for the settlements is at risk, so it chose its line very carefully. It didn’t reject the guidelines completely, nor did it withdraw from Horizon 2020. Instead, it chose to seek amendments that will allow it to continue its current policies and not push the settlers out of the coalition.

The special ministerial panel’s decision was declared “unanimous,” and all subsequent public statements were coordinated, obviously in an effort to present a firm line in the negotiations with the EU. But there is no real agreement among the ministers. The more pragmatic elements in the coalition – Justice Minister Livni and Yesh Atid ministers – are against withdrawing from Horizon 2020. Science Minister Yaakov Perri even went on record on the issue, as did Finance Minister Yair Lapid (in response to a question on Facebook, see here, though Lapid says that the way to do it is to get the EU guidelines changed).

Actually, even Naftali Bennett, head of the settlers’ “Jewish Home” party, reportedly said that his opposition to entering Horizon 2020 under the new guidelines is no more than “a personal opinion,” hinting that he might be willing to lose a government vote on this issue but remain in the coalition. But even if Bennett chooses to leave the government, Labor, which currently heads the opposition, has already indicated that it would support the government as long as the peace process continues, so such a move will only increase the Israeli commitment to negotiations.

There is also the less likely option, that the government decides to withdraw from Horizon 2020 and all subsequent programs. Such a move, however, will have immediate positive consequences on the political debate, as Israelis will need to address – for the first time since Bush 41 conditioned loans on a settlement freeze the early nineties – a certain cost which is attached to the occupation and ongoing settlement activity. Contrary to government statements, this debate will increase the public support for the peace process, as it will be made clear that failure to reach an agreement will have serious implications for Israeli institutions, and that even Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem and the so-called settlements blocs could only be legitimized through an agreement, and not by unilateral actions.

Naturally, the government would rather keep things as they are and maintain the alliance between centrist elements and the settlers. This is the reason it decided to call the Europeans’ bluff by presenting firm opposition to the new guidelines. I suspect that behind closed doors Israeli negotiators will float threats on the limits the government would impose on EU activities if the guidelines are not changed – from support for human right organizations to freedom of travel for EU representatives. But such confrontations are inevitable, and in fact, Israeli public opinion – especially within the elite – is far from being united behind the coalition on those matters. I can’t imagine any candidate for prime minister campaigning on the idea that he scarified relations with the EU for another project in the West Bank. It simply won’t work.

On the other hand, if the EU does agree to amend the guidelines, it will prove – and more important, perceived this way by the Israeli public – that settlements do not carry a political price and that the threats of international isolation were indeed, as the settlers were saying all these years, hollow or made up. One cannot imagine a more disastrous outcome for the effort to end the occupation. If that’s the case, it would have been better not to issue the guidelines in the first place.

Related:
What’s in the new EU guidelines regarding activities beyond the Green Line?
Report: New settlement construction coordinated with U.S. administration
The day Europe got Israel’s attention