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Antonio Tajani, the European Commission’s vice president for enterprise and industry, delivered a personal message from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton pledging to find a way for Israel to join the program despite diplomatic obstacles, according to an Israeli official.
The Horizon 2020 program could bring hundreds of millions of euros into the coffers of Israeli research institutes and high-tech companies. But negotiations on the agreement hit a diplomatic snag in July after the European Union issued new regulations governing cooperation with Israel.
Under the new guidelines, which are to take effect on January 1, EU agencies and foundations will be forbidden from providing funding, grants, loans or scholarships to Israeli institutions and groups operating beyond the Green Line, or are connected in any way to the settlements.
The new guidelines also state that any agreement between the European Union and Israel – Horizon 2020, for example – must include a clause stating explicitly that the West Bank settlements, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are not part of the State of Israel and that the agreement does not apply to those areas.
The new regulations caused a serious rift between Israel and the European Union, and made the Horizon 2020 talks, which should have been straightforward, politically charged and complex.
Over the past two months, Israel, with the help of the United States and several European countries, has been pressing Ashton to be flexible about how the new sanctions will be applied when it comes to the Horizon 2020 agreement. Israel, the only non-European country that has been asked to join the program, has threatened not to sign if the new guidelines aren’t softened.
Earlier this week, Tajani, the European Commission official, visited Israel and met with President Shimon Peres and Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry. Tajani had come to sign a cooperation agreement with Israel in the satellite field, but most of his meetings dealt with the Horizon 2020 program.
A senior Israeli official said that during his meetings with Perry and Peres, Tajani delivered a message from Ashton to the effect that “every effort would be made” to find a solution to the problem so that Israel would be able to sign the agreement. Neither Peres’ office nor Perry’s agreed to comment on the matter, saying that they would not reveal details from closed meetings.
After signing the satellite agreement with Perry, Tajani made similar remarks, saying that the European Union very much wanted to work with Israel because such cooperation would promote peace, create jobs and contribute to research.
On Wednesday morning, during a hearing of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, Perry discussed his meetings with Tajani. “Based on what I know, there is genuine readiness on the part of the EU to reach an arrangement on this issue," the minister said.
There isn’t much time; the deadline to sign on to Horizon 2020 is the end of November. Last week, the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Office was supposed to send the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem a document clarifying the sanctions on the settlements and proposing compromise formulas. Ultimately, fearing leaks to the press, the Europeans decided not to put the information in writing, opting instead to discuss the issues in person. A senior EU delegation led by Ashton’s deputy, Pierre Vimont, is expected in Israel on Sunday. The Europeans will meet with senior officials from the Foreign Affairs, Economics, and Science and Technology ministries.
In contrast to the optimism conveyed by Perry on Wednesday morning, other Israeli officials are more pessimistic, among them Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin and others in his office. They note that despite the positive messages and encouraging promises coming from Ashton and other European foreign ministers, there are still large gaps between the two sides that threaten to block the signing of the accord.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials say that the main issue still in dispute is the European demand that Israeli institutions sign written declarations pledging that they will not conduct any activity in the settlements. Such a declaration would be in violation of the anti-boycott law that the Knesset passed in July 2011.
“The Europeans show no signs of backing down on this issue, but we’ll see what proposals the delegation brings here next week,” said a senior Foreign Ministry source.