The European Commission has come out in favour of the EU enhancing its economic and political ties with Israel. But critics question the wisdom of extending a policy of good neighbourliness to a country that has done little to make the neighbourhood safer.
During a visit to Israel earlier this month, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Union's ex-envoy to the Middle East, suggested that Israel be granted what amounted to virtual EU membership. Then, last week, the Commission announced a breakthrough in deadlocked talks with Israel surrounding the new European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which offers countries bordering the EU the prospect of access to a free trade zone and greater political, security, economic and cultural cooperation with the Union.
“For Israel, the ‘everything but institutions' concept is an idea that could fit well from both Israeli and EU standpoints, but, for the EU, only with the important proviso that the peace process is satisfactorily completed,” said Michael Emerson of the Centre for European Policy Studies. “This idea can develop and a more modest version can be pursued until the conflict is resolved.”
Haim Assaraf, spokesman for the Israeli mission to the EU, says that “Israel sees the action plan as a very positive development, since it has created a platform to develop policy in various fields”, such as the economy, the peace process, education and research. “This process has created a better atmosphere between Europe and Israel,” he added.
Israel is one of seven nations – the others are Moldova, Ukraine, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – chosen to lead the way in the EU's new policy. The stalemate with Israel had revolved around the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and EU mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Israel clearly acknowledges the role of the EU in the Quartet [EU, the US, the UN and Russia] and the need to take into account the viability of a future Palestinian state in counter-terrorist activities,” said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the external relations commissioner. “The same applies to the commitments Israel has entered into concerning WMD… Israel has never [before now] been willing to make such commitments in writing to any other partner,” she added.
But despite this minor diplomatic coup, some question whether the EU should be dashing to offer Israel its best silver. A few countries on the ENP shortlist caused raised eyebrows, including Ukraine and Tunisia, where human rights abuses are widespread. But it is Israel's candidacy that stirs up the most controversy. “The EU is taking too much of a carrot approach with Israel,” observed Noureddine Fridhi, a policy analyst at MEDEA, a Brussels-based think-tank. “If the ENP is to be credible, then the EU has to take a tougher stance.”
Influential voices in the EU, including the European Parliament and a UK House of Commons committee, have called for more of a ‘stick' approach, in the form of economic sanctions. “I question the wisdom of enhancing institutional links at a time when Israel has yet to fulfil its obligations under previous treaties with the EU,” says Mouin Rabbani, Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group, a sponsor of the informal peace deal struck last year between the Israelis and Palestinians called the Geneva Initiative. “Incentives don't usually work this way.”
He mentions the EU-Israel Association Agreement, with its human rights clauses, and the Quartet's road map, which foresaw the creation of a viable Palestinian state by 2005. Instead, Israel's conflict with the Palestinians shows no sign of abating and it refuses to return to peace talks.
Human rights groups criticise the Israeli army's excessive use of force, so-called targeted assassinations and the closures and blockades of the Palestinian territories that are fuelling poverty and restricting the movement of the Palestinian population.
Israel is the only country with a known nuclear capacity in the region and for decades it has resisted initiatives to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. In addition, it is not signed up to international non-proliferation treaties and its nuclear facilities are closed to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. Experts estimate that Israel has a nuclear arsenal of some 200 warheads, putting it among the top six nuclear nations, just behind the UK. It has maintained a policy of ambiguity, never acknowledging nor denying the existence of its nuclear stockpile.
Some see the action plan's stipulation on non-proliferation of WMD as a breakthrough that deserves reward. But others argue that it does not go far enough to merit inviting Israel to become a virtual member of the EU club. “Any such moves should come only in the context of a comprehensive settlement,” Rabbani notes. “Prior to that, the EU would do better to ensure existing agreements with Israel are properly implemented.”
This article first appeared in the 16 December 2004-12 January 2005 issue of The European Voice.