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Israel and European Union:
The challenges ahead

Hannu Takkula, liberal Member of the European Parliament, coming from Finland

Hannu Takkula, born 11/20/1963 in Ristijärvi, Suomi, PhD in educational theory, practiced as an educationalist and was Member of the Finnish Parliament before he was elected for a Finish MEP. He has a special interest in education and a warm understanding and feeling for the youth.

Functions in the EU-Parliament: Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, MEP, Member: Committee on Culture and Education, Committee on Transport and Tourism, Substitute: Delegation for relations with Australia and New Zealand, Member: Delegation for relations with Israel, Substitute: Delegation to the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, Substitute.

He lectured at the Bund Sozialdemokratischer AkademikerInnen, Intellektueller und KünstlerInnen and the Austrian Dialogue Forum for Israel in Vienna,Austria on September 21.09. 2005:

"Ladies and Gentlemen,

What are the relations like, these days between Europe and Israel? What can we say about the future of the Middle East, since the recent Israeli disengagement from Gaza? I have been asked to reflect upon these questions with you today - and I am delighted to do so.

As you may be aware, Europe-Israel relations are complex. As Israeli politicians like to joke, it's a "tiny country, with enormous problems".

Generally, Europeans have a lot of admiration in what the State of Israel has managed to accomplish in less than 60 years! It turned a desert-like soil -with little productivity- into an industrialised and thriving economy.

The country was created by idealistic intellectuals, many of whom were from socialist backgrounds, who insisted upon the values of equality of men and women; solidarity between rich and poor. Today, these values are still very strong in Israel, even if the country runs a liberal and competitive economy, based on free trade - and a place where there is also room for individual economic initiative.

In the eyes of Europeans, Israel is indeed a mix of idealistic values and pragmatic policies. It shares the values of democracy- upon which the EU is united by. As for the Israeli population, many citizens still have their roots and relatives in Europe. Europe remains a symbol of cultural reference - in the field of arts, literature, science and education. In popular Israeli culture, it is the place of highest sophistication.

However, Europe was the home to centuries of anti-Semitism, which accumulated with the murder of 6 million Jews during the Second World War. Europe feels a historical responsibility towards the Jewish State and is attached to Israel as a consequence. At the same time, many in Europe today view the Palestinians as being the prime victims of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Europeans feel much compassion towards the difficult conditions in which the Palestinians live. They believe that they have a moral responsibility towards them too. This creates a tension that Europe constantly struggles with: historical guilt towards the Jews, political solidarity towards the Palestinians. Although EU-Israel political relations are sometimes messy, cultural and economic cooperation with Israel is generally excellent. For example, there are many exchanges in the field of sports, education and scientific cooperation, which form a special link between Israel and Europe. On the economic level, the EU is Israelis major trading partner: about 40 of Israeli imports come from the EU and about 30 of exports are directed to the EU. That makes the EU occupy rank number 1 in Israeli imports and rank number 2 in its exports. Israel was also the first and only non-European country to be fully associated to the European Community's Framework Program for Research and Technical Development.

Furthermore, Israel is quite actively involved in multilateral local programs organised under the MEDA-program, which is the EU's Mediterranean foreign policy organization that coordinates cooperation in the field of audiovisual policy, youth, culture as well as justice and home affairs. Israel's GDP is too high for receiving funding from this program. But it, has been given rights to participate in them.

But having said this - we will not forget so easily the turbulent times that EU-Israel relations faced in recent years. A series of events cast a cloud that many are still finding it difficult to forget. For example, in April 2002, the European Parliament, the institution that I myself am part of today, called European governments to suspend its Association Agreement with Israel, due to Israel's policies- which were considered at the time too forceful against the Palestinians. Never before, had the EU called to break off political and economical ties with a democratic country in such a way! The Council, composed of EU governments, finally refused to suspend the agreement.

A second example which comes to my mind is an incident of a different nature, which broke out in October 2003. This time, it. was not caused by EU law makers, but rather the European public - which embarrassed EU politicians; According to a survey that questioned 7,500 residents of EU countries, nearly 60% of Europeans felt that Israel represented the "greatest threat to world peace". This survey was held several months after the US invasion of Iraq. It was neither Saddam Hussein, nor even George Bush who was a threat to world peace. But Israel.

There are other negative incidents that we you could use to illustrate recent situations which "challenged" EU-Israel relations. For example, the trade disputes in which the EU did not recognise goods produced in the occupied territories as being "made in Israel".

Another example: let us not forget the strong EU criticism Israel faces until this day on the construction of the security barrier, or what others call "the wall" -that the Israelis are building to protect itself from terrorist attacks.

Finally- and perhaps on of the most controversial incidents: many friends of Israel were extremely unsatisfied at the way the European Union dealt with funds it gave lo the Palestinian Authority in recent years. In 2002, serious allegations were made, accusing some of the EU money to being channelled to terrorist organisations by the PA. Once again, it was the European Parliament who led the investigation on these funds.

But today, i believe that this turbulent period is closed.

I think that although it is important to recognize the difficulties Israel has faced with the EU, it is necessary to appreciate the positive developments that have occurred in recent times too. We may be even opening a new and chapter in our relations. Why?

First of all, at this crucial time, the international context has changed. In the same way that in the past year, Franco-American relations have been repaired since the outbreak of the war in Iraq, EU-Israel relations arc also gradually improving. Building political trust and common visions for world security will take time. But I think democracies are increasingly realizing that they must work together to overcome global threats and ensure global peace. For example, last August, an editorial appeared in Denmark's most popular newspaper, Jylland Posten, Reacting to the London bombings, it proclaimed that now "we are all Israelis." The editorial strongly criticized the West's hypocrisy towards Israel, which it said in the past had sometimes gone so far as to deny Israel the right to defend itself under attack. The editorial added that Europe is now getting a taste of what Israel has had to endure for many years. So new voices are starting to raise. And public opinions across Europe are increasingly anxious about security threats. And now that the Iraqi page has been turned, Europe and the United States are all the more determined to find common solutions, rather to reflect on the differences in their strategic approaches.

Secondly, the Middle East has undergone some extraordinary changes in recent months. In 2002, the UNDP report published by a group of leading Arab scholars and intellectuals, was equivalent to an ideological earthquake which rocked Arab society and shook up traditional schools of thought. The pulse of the Arab world has changed since then. The voices in the Arab street are chorusing new ideas. The region is thirsty for democratic change. And many a leader in the Middle East is increasingly needing to take quicker steps in order to follow both the pace and the demands of its' people. What has changed since then? The political train is moving through a new landscape of reforms, For example, in 2005, women played an important part in the first ever democratic elections organised in Palestine and in Iraq. Recently, Egypt's reformed its presidential elections to include new candidates. The opposition movement "Kifaya" is crying out in the streets of Cairo "Enough!" Pacific protests in Lebanon, what we call in Europe the "Orange revolution of the Middle East", overthrew foreign occupation of Syrian troops. Legislative elections were held with women voters and candidates in Oman. Kuwait, has granted women the right to vote and run in elections, after street protesters demonstrated in favour of women's rights.

Such developments are frankly remarkable in such a short space of time. The EU is cautiously watching the developments of the region, before taking a large stride into one direction. I would say that the European Union is in a "humble, listening phase" right now.

And of course, allow me to say a few words about the Palestinian elections which were conducted last January. The delegation from the European parliament, which I am a member, took in the observation mission. I think the elections went well and peacefully irrespective of the circumstances that time. Although the result of the election was known in advance, I must say that the organization and the voting in itself was in many ways successful and fulfilled the democratic rules of the elections.

This was possible by the help of the EU, Israel and the United States. The elections held in Palestinian were the exception compared to other countries in the Arab world and therefore this can be taken as very positive step.

Unfortunately, the legislative elections of the Palestinian autonomy was postponed by Mahmud Abbas and the Fatah-party. They will be held at the end of January 2006. The reason behind postponing the elections from July 2005 to January 2006 has been seen to be low Gallup figures for Fatah- party and the success of Hamas in the local elections. The so called official reason for the postponement has been stated to be a disagreement on the election law inside the legislature body.

In the meantime, the quartet (composed of the EU, the UN, the US and Russia) supports the departure of Gaza and promises to help with the management after the departure.

Thirdly, the EU has gone through big changes too. Since it has been enlarged to 25 Member States, it's foreign policy priorities have shifted to the direction of Vienna - in other words to the East. It is making sure that it maintains good relations with its neighbours: Ukraine, Russia, Turkey. On that level, close to home, it is looking towards the East, the South East and the Balkan. The EU is also increasingly looking towards the South East to tackle trade relations with rising commercial powers, such us China. The Middle East remains very much part of the picture- but it's not the entire picture.

Now, back to the Middle East. What are EU-Palestinian relations like?

They are equally complex. The European Union has donated millions of euros to the Palestinian economy, in order to help the Palestinians who are in great distress- and also to leaver the Union's role as a peace builder. Through the years, the EU has provided financial assistance, delivered humanitarian aid; it has injected credits to balance the deficits in the PA budget (10 MIO euro a month) and has also donated millions of euros to sustain reform and encourage administrative changes within the Palestinian Authority, the European Union's strategic objective in its relations with the West Bank and Gaza Strip is to contribute to the creation of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.

In the long run, if the Palestinians rule themselves, live in respectable homes, have a job to go to in the morning, and food on their tables every night, then they will bear less resentment towards the Israelis, Europe has injected so much money into the Palestinian economy that the credibility of the European Union in the Middle East is directly linked to the stability of the Palestinian Authority.

This leads me to my second question: how does Brussels view the recent disengagement of Israeli troops in Gaza and the dismantling of settlements in small pans of the West Bank? And what is the future tor the Middle East today?

Ironically, when the disengagement plan was announced by Ariel Sharon, several EU governments jumped at the occasion to make declarations, condemning this "unilateral move" made by a Prime Minister who was not very popular. It was not seen as a move that was conducted under the authority of the Road Map. This is ironic of course, because the EU's official common position is to support the territories of Gaza and the West Bank as parts of the future Palestinian State. Slowly, the European political rhetoric changed, when EU governments realised that this unilateral disengagement was part of the solution and not the problem. It ended up with the UK Presidency and the European Commission saluting Sharon For his "courageous" move. As for the disengagement itself, it. was a military success.

But this move was not as unilateral as Ariel Sharon would like others to believe. Today, his political career - and the country's future- depends on the Palestinian's capabilities in preserving calm and not committing acts of terror. If calm prevails, both sides can return to the negotiating table in a stronger position than before the disengagement.

That is the great irony in the Middle East conflict: both sides are dependent of each other's actions. When one side acts, even unilaterally, it transforms the other side's political landscape.

Before Israeli's dismantled the settlements, the Israelis themselves feared a civil war, but people stood together in national unity. It was a very difficult experience for the soldiers and the settlers. And although there were many tears, there was no bloodshed. What can we learn of this? For the first time, a taboo has been broken. Even the religious settlers, who did not resort to violence, have now implicitly recognised that the existence of a modern "State for the Jews" is more important than the "biblical land" of their ancestors. And although the operation was a military success, how can it now bring political capital to the region and create a better climate for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

First of all, Gaza must become a zone of prosperity, so that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is seen as a credible leader to his people. If the Palestinian Authority shows to its people that violence doesn't pay, and that life has improved in Gaza, then the Palestinian people will stand behind M. Abbas and he will be able to negotiate fur peace -and take decisions with authority.

  • What should the European Union do? It must help build Mahmoud Abbas' authority. It must help create jobs on the ground and build people-to-people projects that will show a real difference to the population. Secondly, it must help the PA function more effectively and fight against the corruption that was sustained during Yasser Arafat's times. It is clear that Palestinians are more likely to support Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party if his decisions are transparent and accountable. And Israelis will more likely to negotiate with a trustful, credible authority that it ready to fulfil its commitments.

  • What should the Israelis do? The Israelis need to open up Gaza to outside investment, to manufacturing and to agriculture opportunities, so that the inhabitants of Gaza can export goods and sustain their economy. If Gaza's economy prospers, it would not only be a source of pride for the Palestinians, but it would also show them a. credible alternative to violence. Secondly, the Israelis should not expand settlements in the West Bank, but continue to gain credibility with the Palestinians- through confidence building measures.

  • What should the Palestinians do? Well, Gaza should not become a "Hamastan". Mahmoud Abbas must continue his efforts to prevent a return to violence by the Hamas. He must clean up his house and put an end to the "warlordism" and rivalry between different Fatah factions. He must unite the Fatah movement; he must "hire and fire"; and surround himself with the right people; and get rid of the hardliners and corrupted officials that Yasser Arafat worked with. Palestinian factions must. not. compete for power. That could turn out to be very violent. And most importantly: M. Abbas must not allow the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to gain greater support within the Palestinian population. By improving the lives of the Palestinians, he can discredit the terrorists and the extremists.

Israel has ahead of it tough challenges in order to achieve permanent peace, Israel is however committed to the process and one can hope that Palestinian autonomy government will also act the same. Almost 60 years of life under continuous targets of enemies has strengthened Israelis' commitment to their own country and to peace. Hopefully these every day struggles will one day bring permanent peace and peaceful coexistence between Israel and its neighbour countries.

I dearly hope so. I am sure that we all do.

Thank you very much. 26-09-2005

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