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What does an Irish EU presidency mean for Israel?

Israel's relations with the European Union are not at a high at the moment. Indeed, an unusually strong condemnation by the EU of Israel's continued construction of illegal settlements led some foreign policy experts to go so far as to say that the relationship is at an all time low. Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to the EU, warned that this was part of an evolution in which "Israel loses gradually but steadily the sympathy of public opinion in Europe".

An EU report published in 2012 said that the body must take a more "active and visible" role in the peace process, while options such as a boycott of settlement goods and financial support of Palestinian construction work in occupied areas were also put on the table.

It is against this backdrop that Ireland, one of Israel's harshest critics, takes up the rotating EU presidency for six months. In recent years, Ireland has been one of the loudest voices calling for an EU boycott of goods produced over the Green Line in the occupied West Bank. In May last year, Justin Kilcullen, executive director of the development agency TrĂ³caire, wrote in the Irish Times that EU policy towards settlements was incoherent: "We consider them illegal, yet we economically support them." The Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, has also gone on the record to say that the EU should consider a ban if it would help to pressure Israel into stopping its illegal settlement programme.

So, as Ireland takes the helm of the EU, what does this mean for Israel? In an article earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post warned that it could be "bad news for Israel", quoting a foreign ministry official warning of the consequences if Ireland turned its harsh criticism of Israel into an "obsession".
The concern is prompted not just by Ireland's past actions, but by a letter written by Gilmore in November. The letter, sent to the chairman of the Irish parliament's committee on foreign affairs and trade, said that when Ireland took over the EU presidency, it would "push for a strong EU role in seeking progress on the Middle East Peace Process". He also reiterated that "illegal Israeli settlements" are "now a major impediment to the achievement of peace in the Middle East".

However, it is worth noting – as Gilmore does in the same letter – that the EU presidency is a role whose power has reduced significantly in recent years. It is now the EU's foreign policy chief (currently Catherine Ashton) who chairs meetings of the union's foreign ministers and decides the agenda of these meetings rather than the rotating EU president. The foreign policy chief also represents the body internationally. These were all functions that were previously carried out by the president. "We have to be realistic about the scope available to the rotating presidency under the new arrangements relating to the CFSP [EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy]," wrote Gilmore in his letter.

Yet despite these constraints, the presidency is not an entirely symbolic or irrelevant role. The country at the helm can still wield some influence and, at the very least, push the discussion of issues it considers to be important. Given that Ireland's presidency coincides with a period in which there is some appetite within the EU to restart the stalled diplomatic process, it may be able to encourage some movement. Whether this will translate into action, or simply more good intentions, remains to be seen over the next six months.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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