A day after the European Union announced a ban on economic cooperation involving eastern Yerushalayim, Yehudah and Shomron and the Golan Heights, it emerged that the Israeli government had little advance warning and was reeling from the blow.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was described as shocked by the EU document, according to a senior Foreign Ministry source.
“Only three weeks before he had met with EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton, and she didn’t say a word about the move,” the official said. “In retrospect, it’s not clear to what degree Ashton herself even knew about it.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin admitted on Wednesday that he had no prior knowledge of the new EU directive. In an interview with Army Radio Elkin said: “The important question we must ask ourselves is how did we not know [about the new guidelines] while they were being formulated? This document wasn’t written in a day,” he said.
One senior Israeli official described the new guidelines to Haaretz as an “earthquake.”
The EU document was circulated throughout the EU — to its 28 member states, to foundations, investment funds and aid organizations — two weeks ago. But according to senior Foreign Ministry source, the news did not reach Israeli officials until about 10 days ago. That’s when the head of the Middle East Branch of the EU External Action Service, Christian Berger, called Israel’s ambassador to the EU David Walzer, informing him of the move and suggested conducting talks on the matter before July 19, this Friday, when the guidelines are slated for official publication.
Even then, the gravity of the matter was not clear. Initial word of the insertion of a “territorial clause” into agreements that would obligate Israel to acknowledge that the regions in question are “occupied territories” did not ring alarm bells.
“But they’ve said that before, and we didn’t know exactly what was meant,” an official said.
However, in an emergency meeting Tuesday night of high-ranking Israeli officials, one thing became clear: The impact could be serious indeed.
Chiefly, extensive economic damage could stem from an EU refusal to do business with Israeli companies, such as banks and large companies, that operate in eastern Yerushalayim, Yehudah and Shomron and the Golan. Israeli construction and infrastructure companies in particular are considered to be vulnerable.
Cabinet ministers were caught by surprise, but their reactions to the news were surprising to no one.
Economic Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Elkin sought a firm pushback. They proposed that if the guidelines were implemented, Israel should stop the EU from operating in Yehudah and Shomron, freeze its projects in Area C and ban it from the peace process.
Bennet later denounced the EU decision as an “economic terror attack.”
On the other side, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni termed it a “wake-up call” and saw it as an incentive to move ahead with peace talks. “The only way to neutralize these European measures is to resume the peace process,” she said.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid said it was “unfortunate and badly timed,” adding, “every day that Israel is not in talks harms its international status even further.”
Opposition chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich called for an immediate resumption of talks.
Netanyahu himself wants to avoid escalating the confrontation with Europe. “Don’t forget that we need Europe for sensitive security matters and particularly regarding Iran’s nuclear program,” he told Bennett and Elkin, according to Haaretz.
The emergency meeting ended with an agreement to try to delay implementation of the EU guidelines. It was decided that Netanyahu would call Ashton and ask her to postpone the publication date from this Friday to a later date and open diplomatic talks on the matter.
A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said that Netanyahu planned to explain to Ashton that if the guidelines were published, he would be under political pressure from within not to make any gestures toward the Palestinians, which would harm the efforts to resume the talks.