Foreign ministers of countries in the European Union on Friday will debate possible responses to moves by Israel to annex land in the West Bank, should this clause in the Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition agreement be implemented.
Although the recently appointed EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, is inclined to wait and see how the new Israeli government will act, several member countries have been exerting pressure to approve sanctions in advance as an act of deterrence. These could include denying Israel membership in trade agreements, special grants or cooperative ventures in various fields.
Sources familiar with the discussions told Haaretz that there is increasing support among EU states for sanctions intended to deter Israel from annexing any territory. France, Spain, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg are all said to be calling for a tough line on the issue.
The sources added that some steps, like trade agreements, don’t require the unanimous agreement of all the member states; as a result, Israel won’t be able to count on the veto of friendly EU countries like Hungary or the Czech Republic. Moreover, member states can decide on their own independent protest moves against Israel.
“No one wants to reach a stage were EU-Israel ties are damaged for the long term, but they will be in the event of a unilateral annexation. If only because of the precedent it would set anywhere else,” a source said.
As a result, in Brussels they are trying a “carrot and stick” approach; on the one hand, the option of turning over a new leaf between the new EU leadership and the new Israeli government, with an open dialogue between the two sides, while on the other hand, clear messages about the expected severe damage to be done to future relations in the event of a unilateral annexation.
In a briefing for journalists in Brussels 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.”
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He added that indeed, “There are ongoing discussions among the member states,” on the issue and that “the EU was very clear on numerous occasions how we see the annexation. We’ve said in a number of statements that annexation will not pass unnoticed.” Even so, he reiterated that the type and timing of sanctions would be determined by the member states.
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.
Numerous leaders of European countries and the EU itself have criticized any unilateral annexation by Israel, and in recent months Borrel and officials in Great Britain, Germany, France, Ireland and other countries have taken an increasingly strident tone on the issue. 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.
Other steps discussed in European capitals as responses to a unilateral Israeli annexation include: recalling ambassadors to Israel for consultations; European support for a UN resolution against annexation; public support for the ongoing proceedings against Israel in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and intensifying the boycott against the settlements in various ways, all in addition to increasing support for the Palestinians.
Last month the foreign ministers of the Arab League declared that annexing territory in the West Bank would constitute a “war crime,” and called on the EU to recognize Palestine as a state. This week the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah Bin Zaid, who is considered relatively moderate, came out against annexation. Over the past few weeks the Jordanian government has been working feverishly behind the scenes to prevent an annexation.
Last week U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that a decision on annexation is up to Israel, and that his country was prepared to recognize such a step “within weeks.” He said that move would be dependent on Israel’s agreement to negotiate with the Palestinians on establishing their state, based on the Trump plan, which includes a freeze on Israeli construction in those parts of the West Bank’s Area C not slated for annexation.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Israel. A statement in advance of the visit said the focus of the visit is Iran, but the issue of annexation is also expected to come up.