The European Union will today give the final sign-off to a controversial joint research project with Israel, during a two-day visit to Israel by European Commission president José Manuel Barroso.
Israel’s eligibility for EU science and research funding – which falls under the remit of Irish commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn – became a source of diplomatic tension last year when her department moved to enforce a clause prohibiting EU research funding for activity in the Occupied Territories.
It followed reports that a recipient of EU research funding, Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, with headquarters in Jerusalem, used some of the money for work in a factory in the Occupied Territories.
Israel reacted strongly, threatening to pull out of joint-research funding with the EU but, following months of diplomatic negotiations, agreed to sign up to the new programme which will allow Israeli researchers and companies to apply for funds under the EU’s €77 billion research programme.
The agreement, to be signed today, includes an appendix stating that funding for activity in Occupied Territories is forbidden, together with an appendix stating Israel does not recognise the new guidelines.
More than 10 non-EU countries have “associated agreements” with the EU, allowing them to participate in Horizon 2020, the EU’s research programme which runs to 2020.
Mr Barroso’s visit comes at a delicate time for EU-Israel relations. On Thursday the EU said it was “deeply disappointed” by Israel’s announcement this week that it will build thousands of new houses in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, describing it as “most unhelpful to peace efforts” .
Israel's announcement followed the formation of a new Palestinian unity government that will include Hamas. The US and other western states have signalled they will engage with the new government despite protests from Israel.
Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel said last week that the new construction tenders had been issued as a response to the creation what he called a Palestinian “terrorist government”.
On Monday the EU welcomed the formation of the new Palestinian government as “an important step in the process of Palestinian reconciliation”. It pledged to work with the new authority provided it committed to the principle of the two-state solution, recognised Israel’s legitimate right to exist, and committed to non-violence.
In a speech last night to the Herzliya security conference in Jerusalem, Mr Barroso said that the EU “has always been fully supportive of all efforts to try to reach a comprehensive peace agreement on all the issues” which are at the core of the conflict.
“We understand that Israelis need robust assurances that a peace agreement will increase, not decrease their security, and that it will end the conflict once and for all,” he said.
Ireland has also welcomed the establishment of the Palestinian unity government, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore saying the move is a "positive development" which may act as a spur for renewed efforts to bring about a negotiated two-state solution.