Israel counting on European friends to thwart EU sanctions

Israeli diplomats are engaging with European Union members considered more friendly to Israel in order to thwart attempts to punish Israel over annexation plans.

al-monitor Flags of the EU, Israel and Germany flutter next to the Bundestag ahead of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin's speech in Germany’s lower house of parliament to commemorate the victims of the Nazi dictatorship, Jan. 29, 2020, in Berlin.  Photo by REUTERS/Michele Tantussi.

May 18, 2020

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem expressed satisfaction over the results of the May 15 meeting of European Union foreign ministers. In a statement released after this monthly meeting, the EU said, "Ministers expressed their willingness to work comprehensively and constructively with the new government [of Israel] once it is sworn in, but also reaffirmed their support for a negotiated two state solution.’’ The short statement did not refer directly to the issue of Israel’s annexation plans, nor did it refer specifically to any possible European sanctions.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell addressed these issues carefully in the video press conference that followed the ministerial statement, saying the EU must work to discourage any possible initiative toward annexation. Borrell warned, "As always, we are thinking what a geopolitical power as the European Union can do using its capacities, and that’s what we will do. … It does not mean that we are going to do that tomorrow, but we are permanently engaged on that, and we will do it as soon as possible.’’

For Jerusalem, this language reflects growing disagreement between EU member states on sanctioning Israel over plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex parts of the West Bank this summer. Israeli diplomats have been campaigning the past two weeks in various European capitals to thwart any EU decision to punish Israel over annexation plans. While the diplomats cannot offer guarantees that the plans will not be implemented, they are arguing that with the new government sworn in May 17, sanctions would be counterproductive for all sides.

Jerusalem’s diplomatic efforts were focused on European countries considered friendly to Israel, such as Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, with the idea of preventing a consensus among EU members for advancing sanctions against Israel. For the moment, this strategy seems to be working, as the EU has not made a decision on a broad statement against Israel, which would require unanimity, or on pushing a resolution in that vein in the United Nations.

Still, the fact that such statements or resolutions have not been advanced does not mean that the EU has agreed to sit and wait for Israel’s new government to make up its mind. Borrell hinted in that direction when he said, "There have been several proposals on the table, from different approaches, and some member states said that we have to think about how we manage to enhance our relationship with Israel and which things we can do in order to try to prevent any possible annexation.’’

Israeli diplomats are now worried that the EU, with France, Belgium, Ireland and Sweden in the forefront, would push for several preventive sanctions that do not require unanimity but could be adopted by a majority vote. For example, this could include suspending Israel from the 2021-2027 Horizon Europe research and development plan, which could affect significant financial support for Israeli research.

And then there is the issue of Israel’s new government that now includes the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz; although Benjamin Netanyahu remains prime minister, it is no longer such a right-wing government. Israel’s Foreign Ministry hopes that the EU will offer the new Cabinet a grace period and try working with, not against, new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

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