By Mara Vigevani
Europe is not an enemy of Israel. Despite the differences over the conflict with the Palestinians, cultural and economic ties between Jerusalem and the European bloc are booming.
So says Emanuele Giaufret, the EU’s new ambassador to Israel.
Speaking to TPS a day before the UN General Assembly voted to condemn President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Giaufret insisted that Europe’s contribution to the lopsided vote should be understood as a move meant to bolster chances that Israelis and Palestinians could return to the negotiating table, not to harm Israel.
“We understand the very deep connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, based on history and culture. It is a very intimate connection and we are aware of this,” Giaufret said.
“But Jerusalem is also a very important city for the three monotheistic religions, as well as for Palestinians and for the Arab world in general. The issue of Jerusalem is so sensitive, so delicate that it is difficult to use it as a way of moving things forward.”
Giaufret called the current situation in Israel “very dangerous,” and said the EU is concerned that a new round of violence here could be in the offing in the foreseeable future — something he said would not serve the interests of either Palestinians or of Israelis.
“This is why EU is trying to bolster moderate Palestinian forces and trying to be a moderate interlocutor to the Israeli government.
“[Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas will be in Brussels next month, Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu was there 10 days ago and our message for both is the same: Everything has to be done peacefully. Violence will not lead anywhere,” he said.
Iran is an enormous emerging market for European businesses, but Israel’s number one security threat.
Halting Iran’s nuclear program is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s overwhelming policy concern. Sources close to the government have expressed frustration that the international community, and particularly Europe, have not been prepared to listen to Netanyahuentreaties to act.
Giaufret insisted that while Israel’s concerns “should be addressed,” Europe’s long-standing position remains that any negotiations concerning Iran should be conducted through the framework of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the ambassador called “the most robust monitor system ever created in a nuclear deal.”
“Of course what Israel says is important. We need to listen and dialogue with Israel on this issue,” he said.
“The JCPOA is not based on trust but on an intrusive verification system implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“Yes, there are other concerns that Israel has indicated regarding the regional role of Iran and the ballistic missiles. These issues deserve attention and must be addressed. And we will definitely address them,” Giaufret said.
The 49-year-old Giaufret said his organization’s relationship with Israel is “very sophisticated, by far the most sophisticated relations we have with any Middle Eastern countries.”
Prior to arriving in Israel in September, Giafret enjoyed a long career, with appointments including representing the pan-European body in Brussels and New York. He has also been here before: Giaufret served as a member of the European delegation in Tel Aviv from 2003 to 2007 and his first son was born in Tel Aviv.
“Through the years my family has always felt a special connection with Israel,” he said. “It is easy to meet people, to connect. Israelis are very curious, and they like to spend time eating and talking, like Italians.”
That cultural affinity has given rise to a series of collaborative efforts, such as the Open Skies program that has slashed air fares between Tel Aviv and Europe, and the EU-Israel free trade agreement, which was signed in 2000 and has led bilateral trade to soar to 37 billion euros in 2016.
Europe continues to be Israel’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 36.3% of the country’s foreign trade.
EU exports to Israel amounted to 21.1 billion euros in 2016, dominated by machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, and other manufactured goods. In the other direction, Israel sold 13.2 billion euros to the EU. “The numbers show us that trade is good and is going up,” he said.
In the field of education, Giaufret said that Israeli academic institutes have received some 460 million euros for 640 projects as part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding mechanism.
Furthermore, over the last 15 years, 7,000 academics have taken part in the EU’s Erasmus Plus exchange program.
Giaufret said he hopes that when his term of office ends in 2021, Israelis will have begun to develop a more positive perception of the EU. He admits it will be a challenge, but added that he is optimistic that the task is not impossible.
“I want to explain Europe to the Israeli public better. I know that despite all the positive data that I have presented there is still a perception that EU is biased against Israel. One of my goals is to show that it just isn’t true,” he said.
“We care for Israel, and our care is not an empty bunch of words.”