E.U. takes action against Israeli settlements as Kerry renews push for Mideast peace

POOL/REUTERS - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps off his plane upon his arrival at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on July 16.

JERUSALEM — The European Union will take a tougher stance against Israel beginning Friday, enforcing new guidelines that direct the bloc’s 28 member nations not to award any funding, grants, scholarships or prizes to entities in Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to a communique released Tuesday.

The rules replace the E.U.’s current more informal approach to the settlements with a firm, binding policy, and the move may signal an intention to push Israel harder to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

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The measures were announced as U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Jordan on his sixth trip to the region this year to try to restart talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Europeans seem ready to give Israel a little shove, which could either bring Israel back to the table or backfire. Many Israeli officials say the blame for the impasse on negotiations lies not with them but with a dysfunctional, fractured Palestinian leadership that refuses even to talk without preconditions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting with top cabinet ministers Tuesday afternoon to discuss the E.U. action.

“I cannot allow that hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights and Jerusalem be hurt in this way,” Netanyahu said, using biblical names to refer to the West Bank. “We will not accept any outside interference concerning our borders,” he added. He did not say how he would block the European directive.

The prime minister added that with a civil war raging in Syria and Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon, he thought European leaders might have more important things to do.

The E.U. considers the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal under international law and has long sought to steer its money away from them.

The new measures also require that all future financial agreements between the E.U. and Israel include a clause stipulating that the settlements are not a part of the state of Israel and, therefore, not party to any contracts.

About 320,000 Jews live in 250 settlements in the West Bank, and 200,000 reside in East Jerusalem, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The settlements are on lands that Palestinian leaders claim for a future Palestinian state.

Kerry arrived in Jordan on Tuesday afternoon and was expected to lean on a reluctant Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, to come to the negotiating table.

The secretary is trying to begin a new round of direct talks aimed at settling the decades-old conflict he sees as central to the Middle East’s many disputes, although his efforts are overshadowed by more immediate crises in the region. Many of the leaders he will see are more focused on the conflict in Syria, which is rapidly becoming a regional war with radical Islamist fighters pouring in from other countries, and on the political upheaval in Egypt, which has weakened the key Middle East power.

Kerry was having a late dinner Tuesday with Abbas at the Palestinian leader’s longtime home in Jordan, and he is to brief key Arab diplomats about his efforts on Wednesday.

“The secretary would not be going back to the region if he did not feel there was an opportunity,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said before Kerry left Washington on Monday. He does not plan to visit Israel on this trip, Psaki said.

Netanyahu has agreed in principle to resume talks without preconditions, but Abbas has sought a show of good faith before he takes the political risk of negotiating with a leader whom many Palestinians distrust.

During Kerry’s months of diplomacy, the E.U. has taken a back seat, and its relations with Israel have been strained by calls in Europe for a broad trade and cultural boycott of Israel. At the same time, Israel has failed to persuade E.U. ministers to declare the Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

The new E.U. requirements were agreed to in Brussels on June 30 but first reported by Israeli media on Tuesday. They sparked quick condemnation by Israeli officials.

“This will act as a barrier to the peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said in an interview Tuesday. “If the E.U. operates with this kind of brutality, then we have the right to reconsider if we want to move forward with negotiations.”

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid called the announcement “a miserable directive, poorly timed, which sabotages efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the two parties to the negotiating table.”

At the same time, Lapid appeared to warn his compatriots and the prime minister, “Time is not in our favor, and every day that Israel is not in peace negotiations is a day that our international standing is further damaged.”

The new measures do not affect business-to-business dealings, but they prohibit E.U. support for research grants, scholarships or other funding that could reach organizations operating in the Jewish settlements.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, welcomed the initiative.

“The EU has moved from the level of statements, declarations and denunciations to effective policy decisions and concrete steps which constitute a qualitative shift that will have a positive impact on the chances of peace,” Ashrawi said in a statement published in the Jerusalem Post. 

Officials in Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the European Union declined to say how the new measures would play out in future agreements, leading to uncertainty: Are they a political gesture intended to show European impatience with Israel? Or do they mark a tightening of the screw that will further isolate the Jewish state?

According to the E.U. statement, “all agreements between the State of Israel and the E.U. must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.”

Israelis on the political right dismissed the measures. “We will continue to thrive without E.U. official assistance, and from a practical point of view, this will have little or no impact on us,” said Dani Dayan, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, which represents the settlers.

Dayan also said that the new policy proved to him “that the E.U. is no longer an honest, neutral broker in the region,” adding, “They have officially sided with the Palestinians.”

On the Israeli left, lawmakers said the step might mean more isolation for Israel unless peace talks begin.

“We have an Israeli government that is leading us to a loss of independence,” said the Labor Party’s Nachman Shai, “and what will happen eventually is that the world will impose a siege on all of us.”

Gearan reported from Amman, Jordan. Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

 
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