BRUSSELS (EJP)---Ran Curiel, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union, took his post in May. A professional diplomat, active in the foreign ministry for over 30 years, he previously served in the US, Argentina and was ambassador to Greece.
He has been dealing with European affairs for the last 25 years. Before his nomination in Brussels, he was deputy director general of the foreign ministry, in charge of European affairs.
In the Nineties, he was involved in negotiations which led to the conclusion of an Association Agreement between Israel and the EU.
In an interview with European Jewish Press (EJP), he stresses the “substantial” improvement of the EU-Israel dialogue over the last few years. No more “megaphone diplomacy” but rather a real dialogue on a range of issues and the prospect of upgraded bilateral relations.
But the ambassador complains about the fact that “there is still criticism” of Israel in Europe in the public opinion and in the European Parliament where some voices put emphasis on the humanitarian situation as being the main issue in the Middle East.
He calls on Europe to say that the Palestinian refugee problem will find its solution within the future Palestinian state and not in Israel, as part of the two-state solution which means "two Nations Sates."
Looking at next week Mideast international conference in Annapolis, US, he says one should be optimistic about the process which is beginning after 7 years of violence.
“But one should not raise unrealistic expectations because there are different kinds of gaps to be closed.”
“Annapolis has to be a success because there are elements in the region that are waiting for a failure and will use anything that will be perceived as a failure,” he says.
He also stresses that Israel expects Europe to take tougher measures against Iran together with the entire international community, in order to create an effective sanctions policy that will put the Iranians in a serious dilemma.
Here is the full text of the interview:
EJP: How have been your first six months in Brussels ?
Ran Curiel: The life of an ambassador is the result of the state of affairs between the EU and Israel. From our point of view, in recent years, we have basically been in a good phase of our relations with the EU. I cannot complain about the first six months. This phase is continuing. If we look at the last three or four years there has been a substantial improvement in many things that have to do with Israel-EU relations. The main expression of this change is the nature of our dialogue with the EU in both substance and style. Both sides have managed to enrich the dialogue in terms of frequency and quality.
If in the past we used to refer to the “megaphone diplomacy” which means European statements condemning Israel and counter Israeli reactions, this has stopped to a large extent. Today there are many venues of discussion at all levels between Israel and the EU.
I just came back last week from Israel where I have been accompanying Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief. It becomes to be a regular visit to Israel. If you look at the list of visitors from Europe to Israel, just this week: French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband…..
The dialogue between Israel and the EU is a good dialogue on a range of issues, first and foremost the peace process. But also for example on Iran. Last week a delegation from Israel came to Brussels for discussions on the Iranian nuclear program with EU and NATO officials. But bilateral relations between Israel and the EU are also of very importance for us. We have created with the EU what is called the ‘reflection group.’ The name speaks for itself. We are currently trying to elaborate together an agenda for upgrading our relations in all areas.
I feel good because there is a serious agenda both on the political arena and on bilateral relations.
EJP: How do you explain that relations between the EU and Israel have changed ?
Ran Curiel: It is a combination of different elements, both global and also linked to developments in Europe and in Israel.
If you look at the second Bush administration, the relations between Europe and the United States have improved. The Mideast Quartet was created which brings Europe together with the US, Russia and the UN. I think that 9/11 but also the terror events in London and Madrid changed perceptions in Europe.
Europe is no more what it used to be, an observer of the Middle East. It became a real player in the region in recent years. When you are a player, you understand much more the situation, you have more responsibility and if you look today on the Mideast map you see in different capacities European soldiers in Afghanistan, in Iraq or in Lebanon. You see European presence in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, whether it is in Rafah or the EU mission to train Palestinian police. Europe has become more involved and this brought more understanding of the situation.
There were developments in Israel too. The disengagement from Gaza by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was very important in closing the gaps between Israel and Europe. The fact that Israel accepted the Road Map, which essentially contains the acceptance of the two-state solution, has narrowed the gap between Israel and Europe on the approach to the peace process. Today, Europe and Israel have no big different views on the main challenges facing our region: the peace process, Iran, terror, extremists versus moderates, Lebanon, Syria,... If we look at where we want to go, the interests are identical. Europe wants, like Israel, stability, development, democratization in the Middle East. If we have nuances, there are more on how to get there but not where to get. The enrichment of the dialogue between us brought more understanding of each other’s sensitivities and interests.
But I don’t say that everything is fine…. There are still gaps.
EJP: Which gaps ?
Ran Curiel: There is still criticism coming from Europe to Israel. Not necessarily from heads of state but rather in the public opinion, in parliaments and within the European Parliament that stems from a very specific prism of looking at the humanitarian situation as the main issue in the Middle East. I would not say that this is not an important issue but it is not the only issue. If you look at the humanitarian issue or others aspects one should look at it within the context of a certain strategy. I don’t think that we have differences with Europe today in terms of strategy. Some voices put more emphasis on humanitarian issues and others on the strategic goals. Europe is taking position sometimes on final status issues although it leaves it to the parties. In repeated European statements there has been a reference to the 1967 lines. Europe should take a position on the fact that the two-state solution means two Nation States. It means that the refugee issue will find its solution in the Palestinian state and not in Israel. There is no sense in creating a Palestinian state and sending Palestinians to Israel. On this issue, Europe did not yet take a position. European leaders like Prodi or Sarkozy made recent statements regarding this issue. Sarkozy spoke about “Deux Etats-Nations” which means that the two-state solution should be the answer to self-determination for the Palestinian people on one hand and the Jewish-Israel on the other hand. I think that Europe should take position on that. This is not a gap but rather a demand from Israel that is on the EU table.
Europe should say that the Palestinian refugee problem will find its solution within the Palestinian state.
EJP: Do you share the EU optimism about Annapolis ? There are a lot of expectations from the European side.
Ran Curiel: I think that expectations should be measured and realistic. If we look back, we had seven years of violence, since Camp David in 2000. We didn’t negotiate with the Palestinians, there was only violence. So there is a process which is beginning and one should be optimistic. On the other hand one should not raise unrealistic expectations because there are different kinds of gaps in the situation. One is the gap between us and the Palestinians which the process should bridge. There is also a gap between the good intention of the current Palestinian leadership we are dealing with, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, and the ability to implement decisions. We don’t want a repetition of what happened in Gaza. Israel withdrew and we have now a terrorist entity there.
I think that Annapolis should pave the way for launching serious negotiations with the Palestinians on final status issues but on the implementation we will have to go back to the Road Map which stipulates the basic elements to achieve an agreement: fighting terrorism on the part of the Palestinians, building institutions, transforming themselves into an authority that can take over when Israel withdraw.
Annapolis has to be a success because there are elements in the region that are waiting for a failure and will use anything that will be perceived as a failure. It will legitimize the process and support the moderates. We would like the Arab world to fully support Annapolis. Syria can participate but also more important, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries. We will need a show from moderate elements in the Arab world to support this process, both politically and economically. If you look at the financial aid the EU is giving to the Palestinians there is no reason why the Arab states should not give the same. Syria has to decide whether it wants to belong to the moderate camp.
EJP: The EU appears to be divided over further sanctions against Iran. You feel that that they will finally decide such sanctions ?
Ran Curiel: Europe is engaged on the Iranian issue together with the permanent members of the UN Security Council like the US, China and Russia. The EU is part of the UN resolutions that were already taken vis-à-vis Iran. Solana is negotiating with Iran in the name of the Six. I think that there is no difference of assessment over where Iran is going and what the danger is. It is shared by the decision makers in the European governments and in Brussels. But we are facing two timelines: one is the technological timeline that Iran is pushing very fast in order to achieve the capacity to have the bomb. And the other one is the reaction of the international world. The question is whether they will match each other. The question is the pace. I think that President Sarkozy presented the dilemma in a concrete way when he said: We don’t want to get to the dilemma whether to have a nuclear Iran or to have to take a military action. The other way, not to get to this dilemma, is an effective sanction policy against Iran that may change the direction which this country is taking. If you ask me whether what is happening now in Europe is an effective sanction policy, the answer is no.
Israel expects Europe to take tougher measures against Iran together with the entire international community, in order to create an effective sanctions policy that will put the Iranians in a serious dilemma.
Europe has done quite a lot but it should ask itself whether it is enough. Our position is that what has been done until now is not enough. The pace and the spectrum of the sanctions should be increased.
EJP: There are calls by some to Israel to join the EU. Is it realistic ?
Ran Curiel: If you look realistically, it is not in the cards. I don’t think that we should discard the vision of one day being part of Europe. We are not in a situation where we need to answer this question now. But on the other hand we would like to improve our relations as much as possible with the EU. I think that for too long there was a gap between Israel and the EU and this gap should be closed not only on political issues – where things have improved – but on issues ranging from education- for example Israel should join the Bologna process-, environment or space. Israel is among only 7 countries in the world that launch satellites to space. It is only natural that Israel should be part of the European Space Agency. Other issues are economy, home affairs and justice, as we are facing the same challenges as Europe in terms of money laundering and human trafficking.
The Israeli population will feel closer to Europe than they felt in the past. We should do our work to facilitate this through agreements. For example, if you don’t have a higher education agreement it is difficult for Israeli students or academics to engage with European universities We have to create the conditions to take Israelis and Europeans closer. And this is not a gift or a prize to Israel but it is in the interest of both sides.
EJP: What about NATO ?
Ran Curiel: With NATO we are following the same approach of upgrading our relations. We have signed last year a cooperation agreement. There are a lot of exchanges. If you look at the last two months, Israel’s chief of staff, Gen. Gaby Eskenazi visited NATO and NATO’s deputy general secretary Claudio Bisogniero visited Israel. Also, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met NATO secretary general Jaap De Hoop Scheffer in New York….NATO and Israel have a lot to benefit from improving their relations, be it on fighting terrorism, on missile defence or on sharing of intelligence.