The European Union could "call off" its 10-month-old association agreement with Israel if the crisis in the Middle East escalates, and if all 15-member states agree to do so, a European source said Thursday, April 19.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said suspending the agreement — which sets up an EU-Israeli political dialogue plus a wide range of areas for cooperation — was at the "extreme" end of options available.
The agreement, similar to ones signed with many of Israel's Arab neighbors, also includes free-trade privileges that were put in place in 1996 by way of an interim pact.
"It would be the extreme available for member states, if they so choose, to call off the entire association agreement" in protest over Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, the European source said.
But he added that, under the rules of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, any option must first get the unanimous agreement of all 15 EU member states — a difficult feat at the best of times.
"Whether we should adopt a certain strong policy vis-à-vis Israel has been off-and-on for many years," he said. "My judgment is that it depends on what happens on the ground."
His remarks came as the European Union, through its current Swedish presidency, followed the United States in denouncing Israel's 24-hour occupation of Palestinian self-rule areas.
"The Israeli attack on Syrian objectives in Lebanon, the first in many years, as a retaliation for the Hizbollah attacks on the Shebaa farms, was an excessive and disproportionate reply," the EU statement said.
"Furthermore, the excessive use of the army and the disproportionate Israeli reply to mortar attacks from Palestinian-administered territories on Israeli targets further escalate violence and aggravate the conflict."
It added that Israeli incursions into Palestinian controlled territories were "illegal and must not be repeated," and called on all parties to exercise "maximum restraint."
The European Union is the leading source of foreign aid for the struggling Palestinian territories, as well as Israel's biggest trading partner. But analysts agree the EU is at a loss to match US influence in the region.
France and Britain, former colonial powers in the region, want to retain as much autonomy for themselves as possible, while Germany's past — as the center of the Holocaust — keeps it from assuming a bigger profile.
Speaking Wednesday in the French National Assembly, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine warned that if Israel persisted with a hard-line policy, "it would end up by posing a real problem for Europe."
European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen echoed the Swedish EU presidency's statement, saying Thursday that Brussels was "deeply worried and concerned about the situation."
The next EU foreign ministers' meeting, in Brussels on May 14, would provide "an excellent opportunity to discuss in more detail the situation," Kemppinen said.
Besides calling off the EU-Israel Association Agreement — which took effect on June 1 last year, after ratification by the European Parliament, the Israeli Knesset and legislatures in all 15 EU member states — the EU has other options it may consider.
One is to express its displeasure by canceling a May 21 meeting in Brussels of EU and Israeli officials monitoring the agreement — a group known as the association committee, the anonymous European source said.
Others include "freezing" cooperation on science and research, and firing off formal notices to European importers of Palestinian products, which are deliberately mislabeled as Israeli goods by middlemen.
"There are many things we can do," said the official. "But we can't force the parties (Israelis and Palestinians) to negotiate ... We can't force them to stop violence." — (AFP, Brussels)
by Robert MacPherson
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)