Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, attending today's session of the European Council of Foreign Ministers in Brussels, will apparently have to comment on two initiatives that have recently come up, linking Israel to the European Union. One is revolutionary, the other less so; one fires the imagination, and the other is too vague to enthuse anyone. One has been widely covered in the media, while the other has been practically ignored. But the first, the one that has been widely reported, is disconnected from reality (let alone delusional), while the other, far less known initiative has enormous hidden potential for Israel.
The first initiative - adding Israel to the EU as a member state - has been linked to Silvio Berlusconi, the volatile Italian premier who holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of this year. He believes Israel is totally European in its values, culture, and system of government and therefore naturally belongs in the EU. In Israel there are some who want to believe that Cyprus' admission to the EU next year, and apparently Turkey in the future, paves the way for Israel to join the European family of nations.
But it's an illusion. First, nobody in the EU takes Berlusconi's initiative seriously. Secondly, even if Israel were to build artificial islands to create territorial contiguity between it and Cyprus, it would not be enough to overcome the constitutional obstacle to turn Israel into a geographically "European" country in the eyes of the EU. Third, and perhaps most important, according to examinations of the issue conducted in Israel itself, it is not capable - or interested - in implementing even 60 percent of the acquis communnautaire, i.e. the commitments required by the thresholds of acceptance into the EU.
The best example of that incompatibility is the Law of Return, which contradicts the European principle of "free movement of persons"; acceptance of the European central bank's authority and signing the EU's constitution with its federalist elements, are another two obstacles. Yet another example is Israel adopting the EU's common, foreign and security policies: It is difficult to imagine Israel accepting those policies when in the name of its political and security independence it refuses to sign a defense treaty even with the U.S. As one foreign ministry official in Jerusalem joked, "If we belonged to the EU, we would have to follow the rule to visit Arafat in the Muqata."
And since it is difficult to assume Israel would join the European consensus against the U.S. even on "small" issues like the international criminal court, the Kyoto Protocol, and genetically engineered foods, so it is clear that it's not on the way to becoming a full member of the EU.
But while it cannot become a full member, Israel could find a lot of interest in the second initiative, known as "Wider Europe." The initiative, conceived in the European Commission, is meant to complement and supplement the broadening of the EU and offer an alternative to the countries east and south of the continent that after 2004 and 2007's enlargements, will become the EU's new neighbors. As one senior official in the commission explains, the point is to create a boundary for the EU, preventing any further enlargement, but at the same time embrace the new neighbors and make sure they don't find themselves behind either a new iron (or cash) curtain.
So, countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and the countries of the Mediterranean basin, Israel among them, will be offered a tempting consolation prize: Upgrading of the political relations and integration into the European single market. The great advantage for Israel is to be found in the differential aspect of the initiative. According to the senior official, since Israel is perceived as the best of the students in "Wider Europe" in its democratic form of government, market economy, and the agreements it already has with the EU, its accelerated partnership in the new framework will likely be the most comprehensive of all, compared to other countries.
Jerusalem expresses confidence in European intentions regarding Israel. It's tied, among other things, to the new horizons opened by the road map, European eagerness to be involved in the peace process, and powerful European ambitions to mend fences with Israel's benefactor - the U.S.
A wiser Europe has extended a hand to Israel and is ready to turn it into the leading star of its new initiative. For its part, Israel now faces a rare opportunity to win the status of a "nearly European" country, which would allow it to enjoy the tremendous advantages offered by the continental giant to its members, without having to give up any elements of sovereignty so vital to Israel.
Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the potential of integration within the European Economic Community, and established diplomatic relations with it immediately after it was formed in 1958.
During his visit to Brussels, Shalom could signal that despite the fact that since Israel's orientation has been dominated by America, it would like to go back to balancing its foreign policies, even if only by a little.
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