Why Jewish Communities in Europe Need to Step Up to the EU Challenge

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The European Union is issuing new guidelines regarding its dealings with Israel. These guidelines will exclude the EU from funding or participating in programs in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately condemned these regulations which are set to take effect from next year, as part of the 2014-2020 EU financial framework. The Prime Minister declared that Israel would not accept any external dictates regarding its borders which could only be decided as a result of direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

So how significant is this new ruling? The EU guidelines do not bind individual member states but rather apply to EU funded programs only. It does not include dealings with any Israeli government ministries or institutions, and does not affect trade with the EU bloc itself. These guidelines are, as some call it, “soft law” to be decided upon by each member state.

So what lies behind the furious reaction of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Ministry and why are they making diplomatic efforts to have its publication stalled or redrafted? The reason is because they understand that the danger lies not in what’s written in thes EU guidelines, but in what’s coming.

Sandra De Waele, the Chargé d'Affaires of the EU's Delegation to Israel, clearly stated that the guidelines merely reiterate what has been EU policy for years. The EU makes clear in the document that it “does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over any of the territories… and does not consider them to be part of Israel’s territory, irrespective of their legal status under domestic Israeli law.” She said further: “It’s about putting the rules of the game in writing,” and further noted that the document was drawn up by EU bureaucrats and was not voted on at the ministerial level.

This statement in the guidelines, that: “...only Israeli entities having their place of establishment within Israel’s pre-1967 borders will be considered eligible...” is where the threat lies. Not only will a minor and largely ineffective EU guidelines now dictate European foreign policy, but it will be formally integrated as a precedent for EU foreign affairs and will swiftly creep into every document relating to Israel and the Middle East.

These guidelines will in effect set pre-conditions to any peace agreement. To try and set borders would damage the peace process; even the Labour party MK Hilik Bar has labelled the guidelines a "stupid move" that will only make peace less likely.

In fact this goes much further. The EU has been a lacklustre and a minor partner in the peace process to date. EU foreign affairs are consigned to a conglomeration of heterogeneous member states trying to agree common policy. To this end, Israel felt safe in dismissing EU threats as being all bark without any bite. It was secure under the notion that its strong relationship with individual EU countries would be able to deal with any anti-Israel motions. If that failed, then there would always the cavalry on the other side of the Atlantic to save the day. Well, the EU has now finally enshrined into policy the anti-Israel rhetoric lobbied in the corridors of Brussels. For years its foreign ministers have continuously threatened and now they have acted.

The U.S. is staying ominously quiet for now. They are playing a game of ‘wait and see’. For once, it is not them dictating policy – it gives Secretary of State John Kerry an additional carrot to use when really needed. Obama’s 'no settlement' building policy in his first term has strengthened the EU, giving them license to formally outlaw Israel’s sovereignty over these areas.

Far from throwing into jeopardy the EU’s credibility as an important and impartial member to the peace process, as it should, this act will now strengthen it. The Palestinians will now insist on EU involvement, and the U.S. will give its approval for – in American eyes - this becomes a valuable additional tool. The U.S. will make use of the EU's new position when they feel Israel needs to be reigned in.

And when we consider Russia and the Quartet as additional outside influence, Israel now has the Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Worse to contend with. Israeli leaders appear to have been unprepared and insufficiently engaged in the EU process.

So how do we fix it? Far from threatening the EU and withdrawing from all European programs, Israel should turbocharge its involvement in EU politics. It must engage at every level within the EU to make a positive influence for Israel. This includes governmental, academic and social institutions. We, the Jewish communities in Europe working alongside Israel, must find more ways to lobby inside those corridors and change minds. We must give the EU more reasons to support Israel in its right to define its own borders based on social, security and political needs and through direct negotiations with the Palestinians, and not because it is being required to by external pressure.

We at the Zionist Federation in the U.K. work hard to put forward Israel’s case to both the British government and the EU. Notwithstanding the unfair treatment Israel often receives. The only way to influence must come from within – from full engagement with the EU as Europeans and as Jews.

Paul Charney is the Chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. 

A Palestinian shepherd with his flock passing close to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Credit: Reuters

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