The European Union's 27 foreign ministers unanimously approved upgrading relations with Israel on Monday, despite vigorous efforts by the Palestinian Authority and Egypt to thwart the move.
The first expression of this decision will be a first-of-its-kind meeting between Israel's prime minister and all the leaders of the EU member states in Brussels this April.
Separately, the ministers decided to shelve a proposed action plan for the peace process in 2009, in response to Israeli pressure.
Throughout some 18 months of talks on the upgraded relationship, Egypt, the PA and other Arab countries lobbied against it. At the least, the Arabs argued, the upgrade should be conditioned on an Israeli settlement freeze.
Last month, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad personally raised the issue with several European foreign ministers, and as a result, at least five countries - including Britain, Belgium, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta - said they would not sign the upgrade agreement unless it were linked to progress in Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations. That threatened to derail the entire agreement.
Last week, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni traveled to Brussels to do her own lobbying with the EU foreign ministers, first and foremost Bernard Kouchner of France, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency. At one point, she asked everyone else in the room to leave so that she could speak with Kouchner privately. During that conversation, the two agreed that there would be no linkage, but the EU would issue a separate statement stressing the need to continue the final-status talks.
The two also agreed that the EU would not officially adopt the action plan for the peace process, which France had formulated, but would instead leave it as a mere proposal. The plan, first reported in Haaretz last week, stated that the EU would, inter alia, press Israel to reopen Orient House, the PA's former headquarters in East Jerusalem.
As a result of the upgrade in relations, Israel's foreign minister will start meeting three times a year with all 27 EU foreign ministers. Other ministers will meet once a year with their European counterparts. Israel and the EU will also conduct a strategic dialogue on issues such as the peace process, the Iranian threat, counterterrorism and organized crime. In addition, the EU pledged to help Israel integrate into UN agencies and to include Israeli experts in EU peacekeeping forces.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now