The European Parliament adopted a strongly worded resolution Wednesday calling for the suspension of trade relations with Israel to protest its military offensive against the Palestinians. While the resolution is non-binding, it will add pressure on European governments to consider their relations with Israel.
By a vote of 269 to 208, with 22 abstentions, the Strasbourg-based parliament representing the European Union called on the bloc to "suspend immediately" its trade and cooperation agreement with Israel. The resolution called for an arms embargo against "Israel and Palestine" and condemned suicide bombings. But its strongest words were reserved for Israel, as it condemned the "military escalation pursued by the Sharon government" and the "oppression of the Palestinian civilian population by the Israeli army."
European foreign ministers are due to meet on Monday in Brussels to discuss the EU's ties with Israel, but it was seen unlikely that they would impose sanctions.
Israel has a two-year-old accord with the European Union providing for political dialogue and preferential treatment for Israeli exports. The agreement grants tax exemptions to Israeli products, allowing them to compete in European markets. Ministry of Industry and Trade figures show that Israel's exports to the EU totaled $7.7 billion in 2001 (31% of Israel's exports), while imports from the EU totaled $13.9 billion (41% of Israel's imports).
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the EU presidency, prepared the ground for the parliament's decision by saying last week, "Sanctions against Israel are a possible scenario." But according to Yediot Aharonot, the fact that Israel prevented EU officials Javier Solana and Miguel Moratinos from meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, while American envoy Anthony Zinni was allowed to enter the besieged presidential compound, was the "straw that broke the camel's back."
Even though the European decision was mostly symbolic, Israeli officials said that it was a harsh blow to Israel's relations with Europe. "There is a basic lack of understanding in Europe to the damage this has caused, and to the fact that Europe, which wants to find a role in the Middle East, will find itself out of the game due to its pro-Arab positions," they said, cited in Maariv.
Trade and Industry Minister Dalia Itzik said the European decision was an "incorrect step" and came "after a distorted and wholly one-sided picture had been presented in Europe."
Ministry officials noted that it was impossible to cancel trade agreements immediately, and that Israel's accords with European nations allow for a six-month cancellation process. The accords are based on the assumption that both sides adhere to international conventions, and apparently the Europeans were influenced by Palestinian claims that Israel was violating their basic human rights, officials said.
Ambassador Gincarlo Chevallard, the European Commission's representative in Israel, told the Jerusalem Post that there were no intentions to suspend Israel's association with the European Union. "We need to maintain dialogue with Israel, not antagonize it," he said. Jackie Eldan, in charge of the European Union desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dismissed the importance of the parliament's decision. "History shows that European Parliament decisions gather dust on the shelves, and at best are read by the EU Desk officers," he said, quoted in Globes.
The Middle East Newswire reported that despite its call for a total arms embargo, the European Union plans to send 50 million euros to Arafat over the coming weeks to pay his security officers and meet other salary obligations by the PA. Officials said Arafat would have discretion over the EU funding, which will be paid in monthly installments through July.
Germany suspends arms sales
This week, Germany suspended arms sales to Israel. German officials refused to use the word "embargo" to describe the action, the Washington Post reported. In 2000, the sale of German military equipment to Israel was valued at about $170 million and included parts for tanks and torpedoes.
"I can categorically say this is not an embargo," Israel's ambassador to Germany Shimon Stein told the Washington Post. "There are some problems that need to be resolved and that is subject to ongoing discussion. We hope that we can overcome the difficulty."
The paper added that the German decision followed meetings between officials and Dore Gold, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The German press agency DPA reported that the Israeli Ministry of Defense filed a letter of protest with the German government over its refusal to allow sales.
Ha'aretz reported that parts for the Merkava tank engine and gearbox have been delayed in Germany for more than three months as officials there delayed export approvals, even before Israel's recent military operations. The parts are needed for the current generation of Merkava tanks, designated V-III, and will severely affect the production of the Merkava V-IV, due to go into production next year.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel this week issued an order suspending Belgian military sales to Israel, a Belgian newspaper reported, to prevent their use in Israeli fighting against the Palestinians.
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