By Benita Ferrero-Waldner
Two years ago, Israel and the European Union decided to upgrade their relations through a comprehensive joint action plan, in the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy.
While up to then, EU-Israel relations focused mainly on political dialogue and research cooperation, this document raised dozens of different other possibilities. Over the past two years, experts from the EU or from Israel have been traveling back and forth on a regular basis between Brussels and Jerusalem to exchange experiences and information.
Only last week, Israel and the European Commission concluded negotiations on Israel’s participation in the 7th Framework Program for Research and Development, making it the only non-European country to be an integral part of the European Research Area. Seminars have taken place on cooperation on counterterrorism and on the fight against anti-Semitism; Israel is involved in the preparations for the European satellite navigation system Galileo; negotiations are under way on the liberalization of trade in services and agricultural products; and Israeli students will be able to apply for scholarships to study at European universities through exchange programs.
On the political side, the EU, with its border-assistance mission at the Rafah border crossing, which was launched in 2005, is involved for the first time in a matter directly related to Israel’s security. The majority of the new UNIFIL troops come from EU member states.
These examples illustrate how wide the spectrum of EU-Israel relations has become under the European Neighborhood Policy. The joint action plan is out of the station and on its way. But the speed with which we travel together will be decided by Israel as much as by the European Union.
And Israel will have to decide where it wants to go, and whether it is willing to really embark on a European path. Such a decision would require further steps toward convergence, and the willingness to take over EU legislation in a number of key policy areas. Europe is not only an economic bloc with profitable trading opportunities, but also a group of nations sharing common ideas and values. Israel can be associated with this group, but at some point it will have to make the strategic decision of whether this is what it really wants.
Already back in 1994, the leaders of the European Union meeting in Essen, Germany, stated that: "The European Council considers that Israel, on account of its high level of economic development, should enjoy special status in its relations with the EU, on the basis of reciprocity and common interest." Thirteen years later, the European Neighborhood Policy holds out an opportunity for Israel to fulfill that vision.
Europe also looks forward to working with an Israel that can live side by side with a democratic independent Palestinian state committed to peace. The EU believes that only negotiations can provide a way out of the current deadlock, and that a two-state solution is in the interest of both Palestinians and Israelis.
For the peace process to advance, there must be a clear vision that Palestinians can believe in, and Israel can do a great deal to help create the conditions in which progress can occur, in particular by implementing the Agreement on Access and Movement of 2005 and resuming transfers of revenues due to the Palestinians.
The agreement reached between the Palestinian factions in Mecca was – at the very least – necessary in order to calm a very difficult situation and for the Palestinians to show readiness to address challenges through dialogue rather than violence. We all have an interest in maintaining this new political momentum, because this is the best chance of avoiding civil war in the Palestinian territories, something that could possibly spill over into Israel.
If the chances for peace are not to fade away, the international community must stay fully engaged. The Palestinian side will require support – but how much Europe can offer will depend on the new government’s program and actions. President Abbas is a true partner for peace. If the new government is also to be a partner, it must respond to the principles of peace set out by President Mahmoud Abbas and the Quartet.
So, Israel should keep the door open. Recent weeks have brought small shoots of hope, and we should all work to keep them alive.
-The writer is the EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy. (Haaretz.com, February 26, 2007)