Following the September Strasbourg plenary session, in which MEPs passed a resolution on the Israel-Gaza conflict, Greens/EFA resolution co-author Ernest Maragall demanded in these pages, that the EU "freeze the existing partnership agreement between the EU and Israel." But Israeli ambassador to the EU, David Walzer, stressed to the Parliament Magazine that "EU-Israeli relations, have not been negatively affected" by the Gaza conflict. In the ambassador's view, before the crisis, Israel had been enjoying "a very long love-love relationship with the EU". This is reflected by Europe being one of Israel's biggest economic partners, which, according to the European commission, traded in goods amounting to approximately €29bn in 2013. Walzer did admit progress in EU-Israeli relations "has been limited due to the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian issue."
When asked whether the EU can contribute in helping to find a long term settlement in the region, the ambassador responded positively saying, "yes, absolutely, we do see a role for EU involvement and we welcome it", pointing out "the EU's significant role", especially of larger member states, in helping to broker a ceasefire deal during the Israel-Gaza conflict. Though Walzer wished the EU could do more, such as re-opening the border assistance mission between Egypt and Gaza to monitor that items "brought into Gaza are going to be used for kosher purposes… Somebody should verify that materials brought in should be used to build a new clinic and not be used to reinforce attack tunnels".
"EU-Israeli relations have not been negatively affected"
Responding to accusations that Israel committed war crimes, Walzer said, "let me express my sympathies, I am so sorry for every loss of life on both the Palestinian and Israeli side…it's a waste." He went on to say "on the other hand I cannot but feel anger", before laying the blame firmly on Hamas.
"Those who committed war crimes were Hamas. Today after two months since the end of the Israeli campaign, Hamas is admitting they placed command and control bunkers under hospitals… stocks of ammunition in schools… this goes against human rights and is a crime against humanity." Walzer did admit, however, that "unfortunately some civilians were killed, and I am very sorry, but those who need to answer for their actions are first and foremost Hamas." Expressing concerns about anti-Semitism Walzer said "I am worried that this is a growing problem which was boosted during the campaign in Gaza." He went on to say, "Nobody can tolerate a situation where people are beaten up because a person is wearing a yarmulke (a traditional Jewish cap)… or someone walks into the Jewish museum and fires on visitors." He called on European leaders to do more to deal with extreme right-wing parties and Islamist groups, but also asked that "security forces to do their utmost to protect all European citizens whether they are Jewish, Muslim or Christian, to feel free on the European continent."
Despite close relations with Europe, Walzer admitted the strong differences over the building of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories may not be overcome for the time being. He stressed, "We can still do business on many other issues for the benefit of both Israelis and Europeans even though we do not agree on the question of settlements."
The ambassador was still very positive regarding the possibilities for increasing cooperation, highlighting areas of joint research including Horizon 2020, dealing with Ebola and space technology, along with projects looking at food security and water management; "all of these are critical issues for humanity and we work very closely with the EU in researching them".
He also emphasised the importance of the European neighbourhood policy (ENP), through which the EU and Israel "can develop our relations... there is a lot of room for cooperation, and the sky is the limit".
Security was also as an area he marked for closer cooperation, given that "many of the challenges we are facing, the EU is also facing," in reference to the growing threat of Islamic State in the region.
"Unfortunately some civilians were killed, and I am very sorry, but those who need to answer for their actions are firstly and foremost Hamas" - David Walzer
He warned that, in its rush to deal with Isil, the EU should not forget the threat still posed to the region by Iran's nuclear programme. "I hope very much that Iran's suggestion to be a more positive player vis-à-vis Islamic State, Syria and Iraq, will not push the west towards concessions for Iran… but will stand firm," stressing this is "very, very important" for Israel.
When questioned on Europe's strategy for helping to bring peace and security to the Middle East and North Africa the ambassador felt that "the EU wants to play a role but not a leading role". Therefore, for him, it was important that the EU supported those member states that wanted "to join the coalition of the willing" to fight against terrorism. He called on Europe to be more decisive in the region, where "the number one goal for the EU is to bring stability".
Concerning relations with the new parliament, Walzer said, "There are many parliamentarians who are friendly… and who come with an open mind, with whom we can work closely with." However, he called on those MEPs who are critical of Israel to "Talk to us and then decide whether you still want to remain critical."