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The EU’s Not-Quite Settlement Boycott

Much of what you’ve read about this is wrong. Here’s why.

Yair Rosenberg
July 17, 2013
European Union flag(SOEREN STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
European Union flag(SOEREN STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Union has issued new guidelines for its cooperation with Israel which explicitly curtail its involvement in the Occupied Territories. Naturally, this has sparked a diplomatic firestorm. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately condemned the regulations, which are set to be included in the 2014-2020 EU financial framework, saying “we will not accept any external dictates regarding our borders. That issue will be decided only in direct negotiations between the sides.”

So, just how earth-shattering are these guidelines? Tablet has acquired the official document containing the regulations, published today by the European Union, and we’ve spoken to an EU diplomat with close knowledge of its contents and drafting. As it turns out, there’s a lot less in these guidelines than most press coverage would have you believe. Here’s why:

They do not bind EU member states in their bilateral relationships with Israel.

The new regulations only apply to the institutions of the European Union itself. They do not restrict its member states in their bilateral ties with Israel, whether economic, cultural or diplomatic. “Member states don’t have to abide by this,” the EU diplomat explained. “It applies to EU-funded programs, and to EU programs as such. It doesn’t apply to national programs. So concretely, if France wants to fund the Ariel college, it can do it, and it’s not violating any European law.” In EU parlance, this is what is known as a “commission notice” or “soft law,” as opposed to a “directive,” which has to be translated into national law by all EU members. (Haaretz erroneously used the language of “binding directive” in its original report, fueling much consternation and mistaken reporting in and out of Israel.) As for the EU’s own funding: European officials estimate that less than 1 percent of it currently goes to “settlement entities,” far from a substantial loss.

The guidelines do not affect trade.

In addition to not impacting Israel’s bilateral relationships with EU members, the new guidelines do not address trade, i.e. products originating in the settlements. The rules are a far cry from the platform of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks an end to all commerce and other contact with Israel in toto, and don’t even approach the West Bank boycott advocated by some liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart. Rather, in their own words, the guidelines only prohibit “EU support in the form of grants, prizes or financial instruments” from being given to companies or organizations with activities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. (Individuals living in those areas, however, are exempt.)

The regulations may affect the language of future EU-Israel trade agreementsagain, not bilateral ones with EU members–though how this would play out in practice is unclear, and Israel has already signed accords with the EU in the past that explicitly excluded the settlements for certain purposes.

The regulations do not apply to Israeli governmental institutions, regardless of their location.

The new rules explicitly exempt all Israeli national authorities, like ministries and government agencies, even if they are based in the Occupied Territories. For example, “the Israeli Authority for Antiquities, which is based in East Jerusalem, are not affected by this commission notice,” said the EU diplomat.

The move is not, as some have suggested, a hardball attempt to assist John Kerry in restarting negotiations.

The reason these guidelines were issued now is simple: “The budget of the EU is based on a six-year program, so the next budget will be 2014 to 2020,” explained the diplomat. “So they wanted to have this commission notice included now, in this budget.” In others words, these updates to the EU’s settlement guidelines–which have been in the works for some time–had to be issued at this juncture due to the EU’s financial cycle, regardless of whether Secretary of State John Kerry was in the region attempting to restart peace talks.

The EU’s move is, according to the diplomat, simply an attempt to bring its own institutions formally in line with its long-stated policy position that the Occupied Territories are not part of Israel. (This is why the guidelines bar EU involvement in the Golan Heights, a territory that is claimed by Syria, not the Palestinians, and has little relevance to the peace process.) Thus, claims that the guidelines are part of an EU strategy to ratchet up pressure on Israel in advance of Kerry’s efforts–pressure which would increase should those efforts fail–insinuate a conspiracy where none is evident.

They do not take effect until 2014.

Contrary to Haaretz‘s reporting that the new guidelines “will go into effect by the end of this week,” they are only being published this week. Rather, as previously noted, the regulations are part of the next EU financial framework for 2014-2020, which takes effect on January 1, 2014. Whatever consequences these rules may have, they will not be sprung on Israel overnight and there will be time for Israel to explore options for working within (or around) them.


Bottom line: these regulations hardly seem the diplomatic “earthquake” some have called them, let alone “economic terrorism,” as Naftali Bennett has dubbed them. Rather, they are a largely symbolic shot across the bow, making explicit what was already the EU’s unwritten policy, and reflecting growing frustration within Europe at Israel’s settlement practices. Whether the EU or its members are willing to go farther than these limited restrictions, should Israeli policy continue and the peace process remain moribund, remains to be seen.

Read the EU’s complete document below:

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.