Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished speakers,
The European Union is proud to continue its association with the Israel Conference on Peace.
I propose to review briefly the state of EU-Israel relations, because they matter, and because they are relevant to what role, then, the EU can play in what was once, and must be again, a Middle East Peace Process.
But I can state firmly and confidently from the outset that the EU is fully committed to an Israel that is secure, prosperous, and free. Our future and your future are inextricably linked. So what we each do matters to the other.
This commitment simply reflects the facts. The EU is Israel's No.1 economic partner. In 2015, Israel exported $46bn of good and services to the EU and imported $55bn from the EU. EU member states were collectively equal to the US in providing 20% of Israel's inward investment, and 40% of Israel's outward investment was to the EU.
Since 2000, we have had an Association Agreement, and since 2005 we have been implementing an Action Plan that covers a myriad of areas of cooperation, and can cover yet more even without our having to formally "upgrade" the relationship – a step that remains on hold.
I will highlight only one specific area, because it is representative of how Europe's and Israel's dynamism and prosperity are inextricably linked – research and development.
Three weeks ago I, together with Israel's distinguished Ambassador to the EU Ronny Leshno-Yar, opened an exhibition in the Extrnal Service's building itself celebrating the many inventions and breakthroughs that Israelis have achieved in the field of science and technology – from Aron Aronsohn and his agricultural research over 100 years ago, to the cutting edge computer security innovations for which the world, as well as the EU, beats a path to your door today.
And increasingly this R&D is done in conjunction with, and with funding from the EU. In 2016 there were 416 signed agreements, involving over 500 participants, for projects under the Horizon 2020 programme worth some €280 million. Serious money, serious work. That is why only last month the Commissioner for R&D, Carlos Moedas, visited Israel to mark the 10th Anniversary of the European Research Council in which you participate.
Similarly we have 11 projects under twinning arrangements and over 100 under TAIEX 0 the Technical Assistance and Information Exchange programme.
So, what has this to do with the Peace Process?
There is unfortunately a fly in this ointment, an elephant in this room: the Occupation.
There is a very good question, why we should let this spoil our cooperation? Why not ignore it? Why not leave it be? Let it pass? It's been going on for 50 years (talking of anniversaries…)
But that is the point. Over 50 years, it has not passed. And we are worried that it will not pass – that this inconvenient fact poses a threat to the stability, security and prosperity of Israel that we have affirmed is our objective for the future of our relations.
Why has it not passed? Because there are still 4 million or more Palestinians who want the freedom to live in their own land, under their own laws and their own government, even recognising that security for Israel is a special case and needs to be accounted for. Is this unreasonable?
Why not, an innocent might ask, implement the Oslo Peace Accords tomorrow? Put in place the two state solution that both Israel and the Palestinians signed up to back then?
There are many reasons that you know better than me. But one of them is fear. There are still people whose avowed aim is to wipe Israel off the map. Not, it must be said, the Palestinian Authority/PLO; nor those countries who signed up to the Arab Peace Initiative. But there are others, and I do not blame anyone for seeing that as a threat, against which Israel must defend itself. Our fervent wish is to reduce the numbers of such people, not expand them. But doing nothing to resolve this conflict, frozen or not, runs the risk of that happening. People who feel bottled up, who feel oppressed or discriminated against will feel resentment and even feel tempted to take action. That is human nature. And to have 4 million of them on your doorstep is a big risk.
The EU cannot let it pass for two reasons. Firstly, our interest in Israel's stability and prosperity dictates that we get involved. Secondly, we have a particular, and firm, attachment to the international rule of law.
In fact, the rule of law is integral to the EU's existence, and I believe it is integral to Israel's too. Without it we are all subject to an international law of the jungle where the strong do what they can and the weak accept what they must. This may be fine for the big and strong. But for small countries, like you, and like most of us in Europe, this kind of competitive nationalism is bad for the health. We have seen what it did in the 20th century, leading to two world wars and to the Holocaust. The post-war international institutions and rule of law were put in place to stop that. We scrap it, or undermine it through neglect, through acts of commission or omission, at our peril.
So much of what appears to some as an obstacle to the growth of EU-Israeli cooperation is actually intended to preserve it, through preserving the rule of law, and to safeguard, not undermine, Israel's own future. The occupation comes with obligations under international law, which the EU regards as legitimate and essential. Our concern about settlements, demolitions, territorial clauses, indications of origin, statements on human rights, preserving civil society and freedom of speech… all these have a consistent and justified purpose. And we will continue to speak out about them, because they matter.
I would argue that this is more than ever important. The present is a moment of fluidity, of uncertainty in the international system. Israel's links with the Arab world have probably never been closer. But the instability in your region – in Syria, the Gulf, North Africa – has probably never been greater.
So (unusually perhaps) there is one point on which I agree strongly with the current US President: that the time is probably as good as it will ever be to end this debilitating conflict. Good for Israel, good for the Palestinians, good for the EU and good for the world. The EU stands ready, through the Quartet, to play a role in supporting moves towards peace, and itself has offered an unprecedented Special Privileged Partnership with Israel in the event that agreement is reached between the parties on the basis of the Oslo Accords.
Anniversaries are good times to make a new start, to take the courage and innovation which have been the hallmarks of modern Israel and apply them once more to a process leading to peace.
As Abraham Lincoln said: "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today."
Of course, the question is how? We have been round this block so many times, without ever finding the magic formula. But a good place to start is the Quartet Report of last year which set out some practical confidence building steps that can be implemented immediately. Even some old ideas can have new relevance when circumstances change. And circumstances are certainly changing, faster than we think and in directions we cannot predict. The time may well never be better.
So I encourage all those committed to resolving this conflict, as the EU is, to make common cause and work for a solution that will make Israelis and Palestinians both, more secure, more prosperous and more free.