First of all I would like to welcome in Rome those of you who arrived today and wish you all a fruitful discussion tomorrow.
I am honoured to have been asked to deliver tonight keynote speech and open with my considerations your workshop and debate. Those who already know me are certainly aware that Middle Eastern affairs, and in particular the question of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, have always been among the foreign policy issues that I consider of the utmost importance for the European Union and for Italy, and whose long history I hold as extremely frustrating. Even though I have hopes that US Secretary John Kerry’s efforts to give peace talks another chance will be rewarded by some steps forward in the achievement of an agreement between the two parts. For these reasons, I am very happy to share with you tonight a few observations about the state of relations between the European Union and Israel.
We all know that it is virtually impossible to fully separate a discussion on relations between the EU and Israel from a discussion on the evolution – or lack of evolution – of the Peace Process. The latter influences not only the relationship between Brussels and Tel Aviv, producing an alternation between mutually profitable cooperation and periods of caution, but also the European public opinions’ attitude towards Israel.
It is not up to me to illustrate the technical details of a complex pattern of cooperation, which, I daresay, you know more in depth than I do. Let me just underline that it is mainly on the technical level that our relations are currently developing, considering that the decision on the future upgrading of the Action Plan that disciplines our political dialogue – and other important sectors of our collaboration – has been unfortunately suspended, according to the principle of conditionality.
This is of course a fact that constantly irritates the Israeli government and causes its recurring complaints, but on which there is, at least on a superficial level, a convergence among the EU member states.
However, I am afraid that the general understanding among the now twenty-eight partners stops here. Because if most member states openly acknowledge the importance – both from a strategic and an economic point of view – of peace in the Middle East, they also tend to adopt a more or less supportive attitude towards either Israel or the Palestinians, and often choose to keep developing bilateral relations to meet their own national interests. Some member states even nurture the belief that the search for peace in the Middle East can be fully delegated to the main actors involved and does not require any direct European responsibility. We shall not underestimate the fact that the European Union as such is bound to its principles and common positions and that it is in nobody’s interest, not even in Israel’s interest, to try to split Europe.
This said, it is interesting to note that despite the lack of a new umbrella agreement, the ties with Israel are steadily tightening. Let me just recall the 2009 agreement to liberalise trade in agriculture and fisheries products; the protocol for mutual recognition of industrial standards; the 2011 one with the European Space Agency; the programmes for educational exchanges and the ones in the area of research and innovation, such as Horizon 2020; or last June Euro-Mediterranean Aviation Agreement, which – when ratified by all member states – will replace the bilateral accords currently in force.
Among the most controversial issues – because of its economic and political repercussions – is probably the question of the labelling of goods originated in the settlements, as the title of tomorrow workshop highlights. Failing to require Israel to make a distinction between goods produced in the settlements and those produced in proper Israel has allowed the former to enter European markets at preferential tariff rates.
The EU member states have often been indulgent on this question, and the consequence has been an EU involuntary support for the expansion of the settlements. And this is something that the European Union simply can no longer back. As the Conclusion of last December Foreign Affairs Council stated “all agreements between the State of Israel and the EU must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967”. Let me be crystal clear: to breach this statement would be tantamount to violating the European Union’s fundamental and non-negotiable principles and values. Let me also add that the EU decision is not intended against Israel. By contrast it favours those Israeli people – that according to the polls are the majority in Israel – who believe in peace and consider the settlements an obstacle to the achievement of a peace agreement.
Despite the many difficulties determined by Israel’s controversial history, the relationship between the European Union and Israel is extremely important for the EU member states and has great potential. Israel is, in fact, despite the economic crisis, an advanced and vibrant economy, which is second only to Turkey in the non-EU Mediterranean area. But since the spectre of a new conflict with its neighbour or of a new Intifada is always haunting the country, the development of relations with the EU, as I made clear earlier, will always be dependent on the political evolutions in the region.
As stated more than thirty years ago, during the well-known 1980 Venice European Council, a just solution of the conflict, implying the right to existence and to security for all the states in the region – including Israel – and justice for all the people – including the Palestinians – is a top priority for the European Union, as far as the Middle East is concerned. Goals that the EU member states have pursued for decades and for which they have allocated huge resources, both in economic terms to support the Palestinian people, and for the establishment of peace-making and peace-keeping missions, such as UNIFIL along the Lebanese and Israeli border and the UN monitoring mission on the Golan Heights, or the civilian observer one in the city of Hebron.
Therefore, the European Union’s contribution to the region’s stability is enormous and, if you allow me, extremely costly for the European taxpayers. Let’s not forget that the EU is the major aid donor in the region: EU institutions and member states together have provided more than 1 billion euro per year to support the Palestinian Authority, that is to say more than half of the international financial assistance that the PA receives annually.
It is obvious, thus, that it is in the European Union’s interest if a mood of détente and collaboration finally prevails, particularly in a moment of great concern due to recent developments in the Arab world. Against this background, a step forward towards the achievement of a peace agreement would represent an important and extremely positive factor.
We know that at this moment true peace talks are taking place and that there is a serious commitment on the part of the US Administration, and in particular of the US Secretary of State, who has included the Middle Eastern Peace Process among his own priorities. The current negotiation seems to be trying to go beyond the concept of “peace process” in order to get, within a predetermined time-frame, a true peace agreement. This is a chance that must not be wasted. I am aware that some people in Israel think that the current instabilities and conflict in some neighbouring states, due to the backlashes of the Arab Awakening, provide an opportunity to put to the side the negotiations.
By contrast, in my opinion, if they want to avoid the “contagion”, which might have very harsh consequences for the stability of the region and for Israel itself, this is exactly the moment to make a major effort to search for peace. Going back to the ongoing negotiation, I also think it a positive sign that it seems to focus on the most crucial issues, such as the question of security and that of the borders of the Palestinian state, which obviously entails the problem of the settlements, that of water sources and the destiny of Jerusalem.
I am sure you are aware of the position of the European Union on this topic. At the basis of any decision shall be the United Nations resolutions and the pre-1967 borders, which however shall not prevent swap of territories between Israel and the Palestinians.
We strongly hope that on each side more sensible positions will eventually prevail and that the parts involved will understand that this already too long conflict cannot be dragged on forever. Otherwise the risks we will run will be, on the one side, to negatively affect the general instability in the region and, on the other side, to transform the conflict itself from a national one – and as such, susceptible of a negotiated solution – to a religious one.
If I look at the next future, I can still see an important role for the European Union, particularly as far as security and economic development are concerned. As for the former, NATO remains the most important working security organization of the world. And as such, it could promote and establish the creation of a partnership for peace and security in the region, involving Israel, the future Palestinian state, and maybe Jordan, providing a framework for collaboration in conflict prevention, and to a certain extent, even terrorist attack prevention.
As for economic development, the European Union could contribute to the establishment of an economic cooperation and free trade area, consisting – besides the EU – of Israel, the future Palestinian state and Jordan, with the aim of helping those countries develop their capability to integrate and collaborate with each other and offering cooperation with the EU as a great chance. I believe that the European Union should make these two proposals as incentives for peace.
Moreover, such a plan could be instrumental in the creation of the conditions for cooperation and security, and of common economic interests, which would guarantee not only peace and stability in the region, but also progress and economic growth.
I have many Israeli and Palestinian friends and therefore I know that what I am thinking of is not mere utopia. Let me dream not only of peace, not only of two states living side by side in peace and security, but also of cooperation and friendship between Israel and Palestine, which could make that region an extraordinary model of prosperity, civilization, religious and cultural dialogue and mutual understanding.
If these should be, in my opinion, the long-term goals, on the short term, Europeans should first overcome the usual vice that has characterized their approach as far as foreign policy in general, and the Middle East and the Peace Process in particular are concerned: namely, adopting common principled positions at the collective level, while pragmatically pursuing their own interests at the national one. Last but not least, EU member states should be able, for good, to align the customary rhetoric used in their statements on the Middle East with real commitments and real action, on the side of the US Administration, whose intervention – concerted with the Quartet and the international community – remains to this day the best, perhaps only, chance of a peaceful settlement.
Naturally, it is up to the both players to take this opportunity for themselves and for all of us.