Despite Minister's Opposition, Israel Approves Deal With EU That Excludes Settlements

Final approval given after Culture Minister Miri Regev filed an objection rather than asking the government to reconvene on the matter. Netanyahu's government now offers de facto support of settlement boycotts

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture Minister Miri Regev, July 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli government gave final approval Sunday to a cooperation agreement with the European Union that contains a provision excluding the settlements.

With the approval of the agreement, Israel now de facto agrees to a boycott of the settlements.

Even though Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev filed an objection to the agreement concerning cross-border cooperation in the Mediterranean area, she was the only one who did and the agreement with the EU was approved automatically – after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the deal a week ago.

In a letter she sent to Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, Regev protested that the agreement was approved despite her objection.

“In a telephone conversation with you, you claimed that I should have requested a discussion in the cabinet according to the language of the section of the cabinet rules and not just express my reservations,” wrote Regev.

Regev also said Braverman “misled” her and other ministers, “some of whom noted they were not submitting objections because the matter would be discussed in the cabinet in light of my objection and they would express their opposition there,” she wrote.

Settler Shai Alon, head of the Beit El regional council in the West Bank, said in response to the decision: “Regrettably, the Europeans are once again carrying out a ‘selection’ of Jews. It should not be possible that in Brussels or Berlin, they will determine the borders of the State of Israel. If it is decided to accept European funding for education and culture, then it must include the children from Beit El and Katzrin, and the children from Holon and Rishon Letzion too, without any disparity.

"The Israeli government should have thrown this proposal from the Europeans in the garbage and told them clearly that we are not willing to accept such a selection again,” said Alon.  

The agreement concerns Israel's participation in the EU's “ENI CBC Med” program (or “Cross-Border Cooperation in the Mediterranean”), which provides tens of millions of euros to cooperative projects for countries in the Mediterranean basin that are not EU members. These countries include Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. The Palestinian Authority is also a participant.

The program provides major grant support for public and private organizations from participating countries and from the PA.

The program is aimed at promoting socioeconomic development, innovation and competitiveness in a number of fields, including education, research, technology, employment, environmental sustainability – by providing large grants for suitable projects.

In accordance with the EU's standing policy, the terms of the ENI CBC Med agreement include a territorial provision explicitly excluding grants to Israel for projects beyond its 1967 borders – meaning potential recipients in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights cannot participate in the program.

The EU agreement has also been signed by the Justice Ministry, headed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and the Foreign Ministry, which led the efforts to have Israel participate in the program. Tzipi Hotovely serves as deputy foreign minister under Netanyahu. Both Hotovely and Shaked have spoken out strongly about boycotts against the settlements, but neither filed an objection to the EU agreement.

As Haaretz first disclosed two weeks ago, Netanyahu's approval of the agreement would have been final automatically if no cabinet ministers had filed objections to it by the beginning of January. In practice, the agreement consents to a European funding boycott of the settlements.

In addition to Regev, several other cabinet members recently approached Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely about the agreement, whose ministry led efforts to have Israel participate in the program. Hotovely asked her ministry's European division and legal department to examine the issue. 

In her letter to Braverman, Regev wrote in part: "The absurd result of this agreement will be that, if the PA submits a project in [the West Bank town of] Hebron or in East Jerusalem, it will be accepted and will receive support, while Israel won't be able to do so. In addition, the fact that this agreement relates to the [Palestinian] Authority as if it were a neighboring country, as part of the agreement's definition of 'neighboring country,' is also not acceptable to me."

Regev also stated: "My fundamental position is that the Israeli government should reject agreements from the outset that require us on a de facto basis to boycott portions of the homeland or populations living in the Golan Heights, Jerusalem or Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] other than with very limited exceptions In any event, in this case, I do not see the justification to compromise and with one hand sign the agreement while with our other demanding that the world give de facto recognition to our right to a united Jerusalem and even to move embassies to Israel's capital."

Referring to U.S. President Donald Trump's recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Regev continued: "[Coming] actually at this time, after the U.S. president's declaration, when we are conducting a diplomatic campaign led by the prime minister precisely on this issue with European countries and the European Union, is certainly not the proper timing for this. As a matter of fact, it's an opportunity to make our just position clear and not compromise to get a small amount of funding from the EU."

About a year ago, Israel's participation in a prior agreement with the EU pertaining to the Creative Europe culture and media program that included a similar territorial provision was scuttled at the last moment by Regev. In that case too, Netanyahu had also given his initial consent. In the end, Israeli cultural institutions and artists were unable to apply for grants from the program.

In contrast, in 2013 Israel signed the Horizons 2020 scientific cooperation agreement with the EU, albeit only after a political furor. Then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the EU’s then-foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, reached a deal under which Israel’s objection to the territorial provision would be noted in the agreement.