Union adopts waiting policy towards Israel

Series Title
Series Details 25/07/96, Volume 2, Number 30
Publication Date 25/07/1996
Content Type

Date: 25/07/1996

By Elizabeth Wise

'WATCH and wait' is the EU's new strategy for Israel, in a marked change from the avid pace it maintained in building ties with the region until two months ago.

Ever since Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu took office as prime minister on 29 May, EU officials have been watching for signs as to which way the new leader will turn on a host of issues.

Some clues to Israel's stance on ties with the Union itself may be provided tomorrow (26 July) when Tel Aviv is scheduled to ratify a research and development agreement with the Union.

Ratification of the accord is not expected to be contentious as Israel is keen on the agreement as a way into Europe's lucrative technology market.

But the Union is more concerned about Netanyahu's policies in his own region.

His campaign promises which backtracked on former Israeli policies of land for peace and a free Palestinian state are still seen in Europe as electioneering - but EU officials suggest that they are not willing to let domestic considerations remain paramount forever.

“A number of declarations have not been appreciated,” said a Commission official. “We hope they will not translate into action.”

Among those are Netanyahu's recent remarks casting doubt on whether he would honour Israel's agreement to withdraw most of his country's troops from the West Bank city of Hebron.

Netanyahu has also failed to lift the tight blockade on Palestinian communities which his predecessor Shimon Peres imposed during a spate of bombing attacks in the spring.

While the new premier talks about open economic borders between Israel and Palestinian territories for workers and goods, he has maintained the quota of 20,000 Palestinian workers per day instead of restoring the pre-bombing quota of 50,000.

“Netanyahu has been saying he will alleviate this, but we have seen nothing,” said the Commission official.

The prime minister has also been disturbingly vague - for European tastes - on the issue of Israeli settlers in the formerly occupied territories.

Speculation that he intends to step up and even develop new settlements in the West Bank will not win him any friends in Brussels. If Netanyahu's decision to increase support for settlements means more money for the settlers, say officials, this will run directly counter to EU desires.

“A number of elements are worrying us, but things could develop less negatively than it appears,” said one, adding that the fact Netanyahu was popularly elected might allow him to reform his coalition to give it a wider base at some stage.

EU officials have not forgotten the years of chilly relations between the Union and Israel when the latter was ruled by Yitzhak Shamir's Likud government. Europeans disapproved of Likud's policy of moving settlers into the occupied territories. Work which had begun on commercial, political and technical accords was suspended, only to be resumed when former Premier Yitzhak Rabin and Peres took office in 1992.

From the first days of the Labour government, relations between Tel Aviv and Brussels warmed. Peres and the then Commission President Jacques Delors gave frequent press conferences together and the Union was seen as being almost as much pro-Israeli as pro-Arab.

“The sympathy for Israel in the European Parliament when it recently ratified the association accord was totally different from three years ago,” said a Union official.

In addition to the formal commitment, there was also a growing cooperation between the Union and Israel, according to Commission experts.

“The number of meetings has increased and so has the number of contacts,” said one, adding that although that cooperation had not been suspended, “in the next few months we will see”.

Not surprisingly, French Foreign Minister Hervé de Charette has led the way in forging links with the new Israeli administration with a visit to the country yesterday (24 July) at the tail end of a Middle East tour.

A troika of ministers from Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands plan a trip to Tel Aviv in early autumn.

An Irish diplomat said his government, which holds the EU presidency, wanted to give Netanyahu time to consolidate his domestic position and would, therefore, make no immediate moves. EU foreign ministers would “take the temperature” when they meet in early September, he said, adding: “We are going to take it slowly.”

Netanyahu's US upbringing is another factor which will make EU leaders feel less at home with the new Israeli prime minister.

“We all know that he is not the Europhile that Peres was,” said the Irish diplomat.

Netanyahu had invitations to stop off in several European capitals on his way back to Tel Aviv from Washington, but he did not accept any of them.

No one fears that Netanyahu will try to undo goodwill or unravel agreements which his predecessor forged with the Union.

The association accord ratified by the Peres government is more or less set in stone and, although the Union's 15 member states have not yet begun the process of ratifying the accord, officials expect it to take effect as intended on 1 January 1997.

“We have signed a contract with this country that we are going to honour,” said an EU official, adding that the Commission was even studying ways to help Netanyahu out of his budget crunch by targeting commercial sectors where Israel's spending in the Union was at its highest.

But implementing commercial agreements with Israel is the least of Europe's problems.

The Union will also probably be called upon by its Arab allies in the Middle East to put pressure on Tel Aviv and, at the very least, to hold their hands if the peace process embarks on what they expect to be a very bumpy ride.

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