EU sides with Israel against its own member states

European Union flags outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  July 19, 2022

Is the European Union more loyal to Israel than to its own member states? It certainly looks that way.

Earlier this month, nine EU governments finally called bullshit on Israel’s designation of six highly respected Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organizations.”

The designation in October was part of Israel’s long-running campaign to criminalize, defund and sabotage anyone who tries to hold it accountable for its crimes against Palestinians.

“No substantial information was received from Israel that would justify reviewing our policy” towards the six groups, said the 12 July joint statement from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

“In the absence of such evidence, we will continue our cooperation and strong support for the civil society in the occupied Palestinian territories,” they added.

Several of the groups targeted by Israel receive funding directly from these governments as well as from the EU’s central bureaucracy in Brussels.

Three of them – Addameer, Al-Haq, and Defense for Children International-Palestine – have closely cooperated with the International Criminal Court’s investigation of war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza.

So as soon as the statement from the nine governments came out, I wrote to Peter Stano, the EU’s foreign affairs spokesperson, to ask if Brussels endorsed it.

More than a week later – and despite two reminders – the normally responsive Stano has sent no reply.

I can only take this silence to mean that the unaccountable EU bureaucracy disagrees with its own member states and is taking its own, even more hardline pro-Israel approach.

In effect, Brussels is siding with Tel Aviv against the EU governments that were finally exasperated enough by Israel’s smears and lies to say so publicly.

Even without a reply from Stano, the evidence for this is clear enough.

The Electronic Intifada revealed in October that Israel gave the EU advance notice of its intent to designate the Palestinian groups as “terrorist,” but Brussels failed to push back or even to communicate this to its own member states.

At the time, Stano conceded that the EU needed “more information regarding the basis for these designations” – an admission that Israel had not supplied any real evidence.

‘Unlawful’ suspension

Last month, Al-Haq succeeded in petitioning the European Commission to lift its suspension of funding for one of the human rights organization’s projects sponsored by the EU.

Al-Haq said the “disgraceful suspension” had been “unlawful from the start and based on Israeli propaganda and disinformation.”

A letter from the EU confirmed that the bloc’s anti-fraud unit OLAF had “concluded that there is no suspicion of irregularities and/or fraud affecting EU funds” provided to Al-Haq.

Al-Haq blamed Olivér Várhelyi, a senior unelected EU official, for the suspension, asserting that it was “aimed at giving the Israeli government a tailwind in its attempts to disrupt and defame Palestinian civil society and to oppress the voices of Palestinian human rights organizations and defenders.”

Várhelyi was also responsible for the suspension of EU aid to Palestinians, including funding to pay for lifesaving treatments for Palestinian cancer patients.

That aid was unblocked last month, just before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Israel and the occupied West Bank, where she spent most of her time pandering to Tel Aviv.

EU revives high-level forum with Israel

But whatever disagreements there may be among the EU and its member states over the six organizations, that has not dented their unanimity when it comes to giving Israel unconditional rewards for its crimes against the Palestinian people.

On Monday, the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers decided to resume meetings of the EU-Israel Association Council.

This high-level forum has not met in a decade, much to the annoyance of Israel and its lobby.

The ministers “agreed to reconvene the meetings and start work to determine the EU position,” according to a communique from Brussels.

“The EU position on the Middle East Process has not changed since the 2016 Council conclusions supporting the two-state solution,” the statement noted.

While the EU has maintained verbal support for the moribund “two-state solution,” it continues to reward and incentivize Israel’s violent colonization of occupied Palestinian land, negating the concept of an independent Palestinian state.

Várhelyi’s reaction to Monday’s decision underscores that there’s no reason to expect any change.

He hailed the resumption of the high-level forum as a further sign that the EU is “firmly committed” to its relationship with Israel and urged that the bloc “seize [the] opportunity of normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries.”

Dimiter Tzantchev, the EU ambassador in Tel Aviv, asserted that the EU-Israel Association Council “should allow us to engage with our Israeli partners and to reflect on the Middle East Peace Process and the EU’s role in it.”

Tzantchev’s vague wording was no doubt carefully crafted to give the impression that this blatant reward for Israel would somehow advance the long-dead “peace process,” while offering absolutely no concrete commitments on the part of Brussels to advance Palestinian rights.

The EU decision to restore the high-level dialogue is an “important achievement” for Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, according to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid.

Ravid notes that this was one of Lapid’s key goals when he took over as Israel’s foreign minister just over a year ago.

Unprincipled delay

Citing an anonymous “senior European official,” The Times of Israel reported on Monday that Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, had been delaying the resumption of EU-Israel council meetings “because of the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh” in May.

The same month, Israel also announced a massive expansion of its West Bank colonies, prompting a rare condemnation from Borrell.

“There were two things that were unacceptable in terms of diplomacy – the killing of the journalist, and the announcement of 4,000 new settlements,” the anonymous European official said, according to The Times of Israel.

“Borrell told us, can you imagine I am going to put on the agenda a meeting of cooperation with the images on TV… come on,” the official added.

But this was no principled position.

The spineless Borrell was merely concerned about appearances and thought it prudent to wait until the murder of the Al Jazeera correspondent was out of the headlines before giving Israel more rewards.

Borrell had indicated that he would only advance the matter during the six-month Czech presidency, which began on 1 July, according to The Times of Israel.

And that is exactly what happened – despite Israel’s ongoing expulsion of Palestinian villagers from Masafer Yatta in the occupied West Bank – among other war crimes the EU purports to oppose.

“The fact that 27 EU foreign ministers have voted unanimously in favor of strengthening economic and diplomatic ties with Israel is proof of Israel’s diplomatic strength and this government’s ability to create new opportunities with the international community,” Israeli Prime Minister Lapid crowed after Monday’s EU decision.

It’s also proof of the sheer cowardice and willful complicity of the European Union and every single one of its members.

Ali Abunimah is Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)