The European Union has upgraded trade and diplomatic relations with Israel in more than 60 activities and fields, including agriculture, energy and immigration.
But the wide-ranging boost to bilateral relations, which was announced at the annual EU-Israel Association Council meeting in Brussels on July 24, is unlikely to end the deep-seated hostility European officialdom harbors towards the Jewish state.
The move, which comes amid an unending barrage of European criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank, Gaza and within Israel itself, in fact appears aimed at increasing Israel's economic dependence upon the European Union, with the objective of enhancing the bloc's leverage over the State of Israel.
As a whole, the package stops short of the full upgrade in relations that was frozen after Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip in January 2009, but is highly significant nonetheless.
Among other measures, the European Union will remove obstacles impeding Israel's access to European government-controlled markets and enhance Israel's co-operation with nine key EU agencies, including the European Police Office (Europol), the EU's Judicial Cooperation Unit (Eurojust) and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Notably absent from the package is the Agreement on Conformity, Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA), a trade agreement that seeks to eliminate technical barriers to trade in industrial products, with the objective of increasing European access to Israeli markets, and vice-versa.
Although the European Commission and the European Council approved the ACAA in March 2010, ratification of the agreement has been held up in the European Parliament due to lobbying by pro-Palestinian activist groups, who argue that the agreement will benefit Israeli companies that do business in the disputed, so-called Occupied Territories.
The Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament (AFET) on June 7 recommended that the ACAA be ratified, but its fate will be determined by the Committee on International Trade (INTA), which is scheduled to vote on the measure on September 18, 2012.
In any event, the official EU statement announcing the upgrade in bilateral relations is also replete with condescending criticism of Israel, which the EU accuses of perpetrating a wide range of human rights abuses in the "occupied Palestinian territory (oPt)" and within Israel itself.
Among other items, the statement refers to Israel's obligation to protect the rights of the Arab-Palestinian minority, stressing the "importance to address it as a core problem in its own right." The document also condemns the "excessive recourse by Israel to administrative detention."
The EU urges Israel "to refrain from actions which may…curtail the freedom of association and freedom of speech (of civil society)" and it calls on Israel to prosecute "settler extremists" for their "continuous violence and deliberate provocations against Palestinian civilians."
The statement "stresses Israel's obligations regarding the living conditions of the Palestinian population" and condemns "developments on the ground which threaten to make a two-state solution impossible, such as, inter alia, the marked acceleration of settlement construction, ongoing evictions of Palestinians and the demolition of their housing and infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), including East Jerusalem, the worsening living conditions of the Palestinian population and serious limitations for the Palestinian Authority to promote the economic development of Palestinian communities, in particular in Area C."
The EU is also "concerned about reports on a possible resumption of construction of the separation barrier because the EU considers that the separation barrier where built on occupied land is illegal under international law, constitutes an obstacle to peace and threatens to make a two-state solution impossible."
The statement comes amid a wave of official EU criticism of Israel that is often one-sided, disproportionate and bordering on obsessive.
In July, for example, the European Parliament passed a highly biased resolution accusing Israel of literally dozens of offenses against the Palestinian population, Palestinian institutions and even Arab Bedouins. The statement criticizes Israel for "expansion of settlements and settler violence, planning restrictions and the consequent acute house shortage, house demolitions, evictions and displacements, confiscation of land, difficult access to natural resources, and the lack of basic social services and assistance…" The resolution even accuses Israel of "creating an institutional and leadership vacuum in the local Palestinian population."
In June, EU "Foreign Minister" Catherine Ashton, who has a well-earned reputation for making statements that seek to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state, criticized Israeli policies that "are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible." Since assuming her post in December 2009, Ashton has never criticized Palestinian obstructionism and their setting impossible preconditions for entering genuine peace talks with Israel. (In March, Ashton famously equated the killing of three children at a Jewish school in France with "what is happening in Gaza.")
In May, the EU's 27 foreign ministers unanimously condemned "the ongoing evictions and house demolitions in East Jerusalem, changes to the residency status of Palestinians…the prevention of peaceful Palestinian cultural, economic, social or political activities…the worsening living conditions of the Palestinian population…of jeopardizing the major achievements of the Palestinian Authority in state-building…the continuous settler violence and deliberate provocations against Palestinian civilians…" But nowhere does the document call on the Palestinian Authority to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, a move that arguably more than any other would advance Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
In January 2012, the EU published a document called "The EU Heads of Mission Report on East Jerusalem" which makes an urgent plea for the EU to adopt a more "active and visible" implementation of its policy towards Israel and the peace process.
Authored by EU delegations to the Palestinian Authority, the document includes severe recommendations meant to strengthen Palestinian control over East Jerusalem and coerce Israel to change its policy in the West Bank.
The document recommends that the European Union fund Palestinian construction projects in Area C of the West Bank without Israel's cooperation, undermining Israeli control. But under the Oslo Accords, Area C is under full Israeli civil and security control; it contains all of Israel's West Bank settlements and a small Palestinian population. The EU document also states that Israel's policies are undermining the prospect of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and calls on Israel to support Palestinian construction across Area C and in East Jerusalem.
The report includes a radical proposal for "appropriate EU legislation to prevent/discourage financial transactions in support of settlement activity." Under the proposal, the European Commission would use legislation to force European companies to stop doing business with companies involved in settlement construction and commercial activities.
Recommendations include the preparation of a "blacklist" of settlers considered violent in order to consider later the option of banning them from entering the European Union. The document also seeks to encourage more PA activity and representation in East Jerusalem.
The report advises senior EU figures visiting East Jerusalem to refrain from being escorted by official Israeli representatives or security personnel. In addition, the document encourages officials to instruct European tourism firms to refrain from supporting Israeli businesses located in East Jerusalem and to raise EU public awareness of Israeli products originating from the settlements or from East Jerusalem.
In December 2011, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained a classified working paper produced by European embassies in Israel, which recommended that the European Union should consider Israel's treatment of its Arab population a "core issue, not second tier to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
The document is unprecedented in that it deals with internal Israeli issues. According to European diplomats and senior Foreign Ministry officials quoted by Haaretz, the document was written and sent to EU headquarters in Brussels behind the back of the Israeli government.
Other issues the document deals with include "the lack of progress in the peace process, the continued occupation of the territories, Israel's definition of itself as Jewish and democratic, and the influence of the Israeli Arab population."
The original document also included suggestions for action the EU should take, but these were removed from the final version at the insistence of several countries. Among these were the suggestion that the EU file an official protest every time a bill discriminating against Arabs passes a second reading in the Knesset, and that the EU ensure that all Arab towns have completed urban plans, "with each member state potentially 'adopting' a municipality to this end."
Haaretz reported that, according to a European diplomat involved in drafting the report, work on it began in 2010 at the initiative of Britain. The idea was to write a report that could be debated by a forum of EU foreign ministers. At some point, however, several countries, among them the Czech Republic, Poland and the Netherlands, expressed objections to its contents and the document was watered down.
Also in December, four EU members of the UN Security Council issued an angry joint statement branding Israeli "settlements" in Palestinian occupied territories and East Jerusalem as "illegal under international law." The statement said: "We call on the Israeli government to reverse these steps. The viability of the Palestinian state that we want to see and the two-state solution that is essential for Israel's long-term security are threatened by the systematic and deliberate expansion of settlements."
While the EU continues to exert pressure on Israel, Jerusalem has been unable to extract meaningful concessions from Brussels. For example, the EU has once again rejected an Israeli request that the bloc designate the Lebanon-based Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently launched a new diplomatic push to convince the EU to outlaw Hezbollah following the murders of five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver on July 18. Israel blames Hezbollah for the suicide bombing at Bulgaria's Burgas airport.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, whose country currently heads the EU presidency, said there is "no consensus among the EU member states for putting Hezbollah on the terrorist list of the organization," and claimed that there is "no tangible evidence of Hezbollah engaging in acts of terrorism."
Lieberman has also failed to persuade Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, to "intervene" on Israel's behalf in a controversy regarding Tunisia's desire to include a clause in its new constitution making normalized relations with Israel a criminal offense.
As these examples and many others indicate, Israel should be under no illusion that the recent "upgrading" of bilateral relations with the European Union will end European hostility toward the Jewish state. Quite to the contrary; Israel should be expecting an increase in European meddling in its internal affairs.
Soeren Kern is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.