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New homes under construction in the Jewish settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images
New homes under construction in the Jewish settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

EU: settlement funding restrictions meant to bring peace

European bloc defends measures against organisations with links to occupied territories.

AMSTERDAM // The European Union said that guidelines aimed at stopping EU funds from reaching Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories were intended to support efforts by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to return the Palestinians and Israelis to serious negotiations.

The 28-member bloc maintained that the measures reflected long-standing policy and would not significantly affect EU-Israeli cooperation.

"There is an ongoing initiative by Secretary Kerry to move things forward. This should be seen as an encouragement in that direction," Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said.

The guidelines were published on Friday by the European Commission, the EU's executive body, as Mr Kerry scrambled to reach an agreement with Palestinian officials to resume the talks.

Under the guidelines, any Israeli entity seeking to obtain funds from any EU agency or to participate in any of the bloc's programmes must submit a declaration that it has no direct or indirect ties to the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

Ms Kocijancic said the economic impact of the new regulations was negligible. Under the EU budget period, which runs from 2007 through 2013, less than 0.5 per cent of the primary 800 million euro Israel-EU cooperation programme would have been affected.

"There should not be a major impact from this because this is a long-running EU approach," she said, explaining that the same principles were already being applied on an "ad hoc" basis.

Despite what Ms Kocijancic described as the minimal economic repercussions of the new regulations, they sent political tremors through Israel.

Israel's president, Shimon Peres, urged the commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, to postpone publication of the regulations, saying they were irresponsible and would sabotage efforts to reconvene peace talks. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called Mr Barroso to make the same plea.

After the commission issued the guidelines anyway, Israel's foreign ministry summoned the ambassadors of France and Britain and the deputy ambassador to Germany to warn them that their governments must act to prevent a serious crisis between Israel and the EU.

Pro-Palestinian advocacy groups in Europe have reacted positively to the new guidelines, which they viewed as a significant change and a step towards more EU action on Israel.

"We know that hundreds of millions of euros will not go to entities that operate in settlements from the European Investment Bank," said Aneta Jerska, a coordinator at the European Coordination Committee for Palestine (ECCP).

"It also shows that pressure from civil society caused the EU to take action," she added.

The ECCP and other pro-Palestinian groups want the EU to hold Israel accountable not only on settlements, but also on other issues, including the pre-1967 borders.

"We should remember that Israel's apartheid policy is not only beyond the Green Line, but also inside Israel," she said.

Pro-Israel groups, such as the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), based in the Netherlands, acknowledged that they faced an increasingly critical European public.

"Patience towards the settlement policy is clearly running out. Here at CIDI we support a two-state solution, and we also see what's happening," said Esther Voet, CIDI's director.

She blamed a lack of attention to the nuances of the conflict by EU policymakers and by the media for changing attitudes in Europe. The result was that Israel was singled out for punishment, she said.

"If there is no movement in the peace process it cannot be excluded that this will cause significant economic damage to Israel. But I think that double standards are applied," Ms Voet said.

Ms Kocijancic, the EU spokesperson, took pains to point out that despite the swelling criticism of Israel in Europe, it is still "an extremely important partner in the region".

Analysts in Brussels also say the impact of the new measureswould probably be limited and that there was no prospect of a sea change in EU ties with Israel.

There is extensive cooperation between Israel and the EU, said Rosa Balfour at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank.

"They are trying to make sure that the settlers do not benefit from increased cooperation with the EU. Basically, the EU and Israel have quite a deep level of cooperation," she said.

For historical reasons, Germany was likely to prevent any significant changes in the EU's position towards Israel, she indicated.

"I am not convinced as yet of how deep these shifts are. I do think that the Germany question is insurmountable."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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