The European Union Foreign Affairs Council discussed Friday possible responses to moves by Israel to annex land in the West Bank with the United States' support.
In the video conference, some European foreign ministers suggested that the EU begin mapping joint projects with Israel that could be damaged by unilateral steps that violate international law, alongside conveying positive messages to the new Israeli government about the possibility of "turning a new page" with Europe.
Bulgaria's foreign minister also proposed inviting Israel's incoming foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, to the next meeting.
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Haaretz has learned that conversations are currently underway with the union's commission on the future of Israel's inclusion in a series of funding and cooperation projects on education and science, including Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus Plus student exchange, initiatives with high academic and research significance.
Excluding Israel from these projects would not require a consensus among the member states, so central and eastern European countries that generally assist Israel in vetoing motions – such as Hungary and the Czech Republic – cannot prevent it.
The European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said after the meeting that the discussion dealt with, among other things, the Middle East and the establishment of the new Israeli government: "We look forward to working comprehensively and constructively with them."
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He added, "We are convinced that we need toward bringing a solution to the Palestinian issue and we reaffirm our position in support of a negotiated two-state solution. For this to be possible, unilateral action from either side should be avoided and international law should be upheld. We must work to discourage any possible initiative toward annexation, and this will require reaching out by all of us to Israel and the United States and Palestinians, using all channels that the EU has. Our discussions on this complex topic will continue, but we will not advance events."
When asked about the possibility of sanctions, Borrell said that it is a complex issue and that "there have been several proposals on the table," adding that there are member states that have indicated that we should consider how to prevent annexation, but "that doesn't mean we'll do it tomorrow."
Jerusalem expressed satisfaction that the discussion ended with no concrete declarations or decisions, and that Borrel did not attack Israel during the press conference, but rather emphasized the need to respect international law. Israel was also content with Borrel's answer regarding whether or not the annexation of parts of the West Bank would be similar to that of Crimea, in which he said there is a difference between annexing territory that belongs to a sovereign state and that of the Palestinians.
s reported in Haaretz earlier this week, there is increasing support among EU states for sanctions intended to deter Israel from annexing any new territory. Several European countries, headed by France along with Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Belgium and Luxembourg are all said to be calling for a hard line on the issue.
However, Borrell is inclined to wait and see how the new government will act once sworn in. Sources familiar with the discussions emphasize that recently Germany, which is generally considered pro-Israel, is also expressing stiffer views against Israeli annexation behind the scenes.
During the past two months the European Union's special envoy to the Middle East, Susanna Terstal, met with some EU states representatives to understand what their approach to Israeli annexation is and concluded that they have a growing demand from other countries to prepare a response document to deter Israel from unilateral measures.
In addition to the proposal to prevent Israel from accessing EU projects, other steps discussed include summoning ambassadors back for consultations with their countries, European support for UN steps against annexation, public support of proceedings currently underway in the International Criminal Court at the Hague and increasing the boycott of settlements in various ways, along with increased financial support for the Palestinians.
In preparation for Friday's meeting, Israeli ambassadors have asked representatives of states that tend to support the Israeli position that they thwart a joint decision or declaration against annexation. These countries include Germany, Greece, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and more. However, as mentioned, there are steps that do not require unanimous consent. In the messages conveyed, the Israeli ambassadors emphasized that the new government should be given the opportunity to decide what its position is on the matter and that nothing is actually underway so far.
In a briefing for journalists in Brussels last Monday, Peter Stano, the spokesman for EU external affairs, was asked whether there might be “some kind of sanctions” imposed on Israel in response to any annexation. Stano responded that the foreign ministers would discuss the situation in the Middle East on Friday at the meeting of the EU Council, and that imposing sanctions “is up to the member states; at this stage, let’s not speculate."
In February the EU foreign ministers discussed whether to take any steps to protest the diplomatic plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump, like recognizing a Palestinian state. The discussion was not pursued because of the political uncertainty in Israel, but now the topic is expected to be raised again.
France’s UN ambassador even hinted recently of the severe consequences of annexation for bilateral relations when he declared that annexation "would not pass quietly."
Last month, 12 European ambassadors from France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Finland as well as the EU itself and the UK filed a formal protest document with the Israeli Foreign Ministry regarding the annexation clause in the coalition agreement and warned of "serious consequences for regional stability and for Israel's position in the international arena."