By David Cronin
BRUSSELS, Mar 22, 2010 (IPS) - Diplomats representing the European Union (EU) have drawn up a new plan for strengthening their relations with Israel despite the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Spain, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, is eager that work proceeds on formally upgrading the Union’s political and commercial ties with Israel over the next few months.
Although both the EU and Israel had agreed in 2008 to undertake steps designed to integrate Israel into the Union’s economy, work on this dossier has partly stalled because of the subsequent war in Gaza. But a confidential paper written by Spanish officials suggests that fresh discussions should soon be opened with Israel so that the upgrading process can regain its momentum.
The paper, seen by IPS, is dated Mar. 9, the same day that Israel was heavily criticised internationally for using the occasion of a visit by U.S. vice-president Joe Biden to announce that it would be building 1,600 new homes in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. A day earlier Israel’s defence ministry had published plans for 112 apartments in Beitar Illit, a settlement in the West Bank.
The paper was originally intended for approval at a formal meeting between Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli foreign minister, and his EU counterparts on Mar. 23. Yet that meeting has been called off at short notice.
Brussels officials have sought to downplay the significance of the cancellation and say that the meeting would be rescheduled for April or May. A source close to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, noted that she had met Lieberman during her trip to the Middle East the previous week. "We do not want a duplication" of the talks held then, the source said, insisting that the cancellation was "not a diplomatic reaction" to the growth of Israeli settlements. ...
"Spain is very keen about putting the upgrade [in EU-Israel relations] back on the table," she (Maysa Zorob, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq) added. "Why Spain is so keen is really something incomprehensible for me. I cannot even imagine the motivation behind this."
Some observers feel that once the upgrade is completed, Israel would be a de facto member state of the EU. In a farewell visit to the Middle East before stepping down as the EU’s first foreign policy chief last year, Javier Solana said that Israel enjoys closer relations with the Union than any other country outside the European continent. Israel already participates in a wide variety of EU programmes, ranging from archaeology to satellite navigation...."