Israel, EU Begin Talks to End Crisis Sparked by EU's Labeling of Settlement Products

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EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, left, attends a media conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Israel and the European Union have begun quiet talks toward resolution of the crisis growing out of the European Union’s decision to label products made in the settlements in European marketing chains, and to restart discussion on the Palestinian issue, which was halted by Israel three months ago.

Officials in Jerusalem said Israel and the EU are working toward reaching understandings that would include mutual steps to bring the relationship back on track.

Last week, the EU’s deputy secretary general for the External Action Service, Helga Schmid, came to Israel with her team on a secret visit. Schmid, who is senior adviser to EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, met with Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold, as well as representatives of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and officials from other ministries.

An official in Jerusalem said the message conveyed to Schmid at the meetings was that a condition for renewing dialogue with the EU on the Palestinian issue was that the EU adopt a more respectful, balanced approach to Israel.

“We told them that the decisions of the EU’s council of foreign ministers and the decision on the labeling of [settlement] products were unilateral and in fact adopted the Palestinian narrative. That’s no way to conduct a respectful dialogue,” the official said.

Schmid came to Israel following a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mogherini three weeks ago on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos. That meeting took place two and a half months after the EU decision to label products manufactured in the settlements, and four days after another decision, by the foreign ministers of the EU’s 28 member states, that all agreements between Israel and the EU would include a clause clarifying that they do not apply to settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

Last November, following the EU’s decision to publish guidelines for labeling products from the settlements in supermarket chains throughout the continent, Netanyahu instructed the Foreign Ministry to begin a process of “reassessing” the extent of involvement Israel would permit the EU’s External Action Service, the European Commission and the other EU institutions in Brussels on issues associated with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

The outcome was the suspension of dialogue between Israeli and EU working groups – for example, cancellation of a round of consultations about international organizations and talks on human rights.

In addition, all meetings were stopped between government representatives and the EU’s special envoy to the Middle East peace process, Fernando Gentili, except for talks with him as part of the Quartet, which includes, in addition to the EU, representatives of the United States, Russia and the United Nations, which rendered Gentili almost completely irrelevant.

Moreover, to convey a message to the senior echelons in Brussels, Israel began demolishing EU projects, which Israel claimed were illegal, in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control.

“For the past two weeks talks have been underway toward resolution with the EU,” an official in Jerusalem said. The official said: “Israel’s ambassador to the EU institutions in Brussels, David Walzer, held talks on the matter and Helga Schmid visited here. The goal of the talks was to try to reach understandings that would restart talks on the Palestinian issue.”

At this point most of the details about the negotiations have been kept under wraps. The official said the details were still not final, adding: “The EU is very unhappy that we froze everything having to do with the peace process vis a vis them. They understand that they have to give us something, in a statement, action or a more positive approach.”