In normal times, this might not receive much notice. But in the context it has provoked concern within the commission and among member states.
Suspicions are also fuelled by a lack of trust in the commissioner in charge of the department that drew up the plan and which handles such aid, Hungary’s Olivér Várhelyi, who is widely considered to have brought a highly politicised and pro-Israel approach to managing the EU’s development aid in the region.
There’s also the context: it comes at a time when development aid for Palestine has been subject to a review, with all civil society organisations required to submit new documentation to access funding.
It is unclear whether the 2023 Annual Action Plan for Palestine, which is already running late, will be delayed until this is resolved. As the Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews recently wrote, the Palestinian Authority relies on this money to fund “key social infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza, funding civil servants’ salaries, access to water and energy”.
So what’s in the Israel funding plan?
Its title is “Regional EU-Israel co-operation in support of the Abraham Accords, and fight against anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish life”. It aims to strengthen relations between Israel and its neighbours and help the global fight against anti-Semitism.
The one concrete item mentioned in the document is a grant to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem, to commemorate Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust. According to a senior EU official, €10 million would go to this.
The remaining €8 million would fund reconciliation with Israel’s Arab neighbours. This would be done through grants to Israeli public administrations or bodies, local authorities or civil society organisations that undertake projects on climate change, energy or other themes that foster closer regional ties.
So what’s the issue?
Concerned voices within the commission, member states and in the European Parliament point to a number of reasons for concern.
Firstly, €18 million is an unusually large amount. Israel doesn’t usually receive much development aid as it has a higher GDP per capita than the EU. For context, typically about €1.8 million a year in EU regional development funds go to Israel for “twinning” projects, which partner public administrations to encourage converging standards and building ties.
Then there’s the timing: why now?
Talk of €18 million in funding for Israel began to do the rounds in the Brussels bubble in the past month, and the commission’s document mentions the October 7th Hamas attacks as part of the rationale for why the aid is needed.
A senior commission official described the aid as “part of our normal programme”, suggesting the aid may predate the current context as part of a longer term plan. However, the perception of officials within the commission is that the funding began to be rushed through at an unusually urgent pace at the same time as Israel was conducting its retaliation against Hamas in Gaza. “Someone is in a big hurry,” one remarked.
Also: where does the money come from? Does it deplete the pot of funds available for the region, which will need vast amounts to rebuild given the extent of the destruction in Gaza?
Then there’s the politics of it. Whereas Palestinian groups have been asked to meet higher standards to receive aid, there is no mention of any such conditions for Israeli grantees.
There are things the EU could ask. This week the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell condemned the announcement by the Israeli government of additional funding for illegal settlements in the West Bank. The EU could, for example, make grants of aid contingent on additional safeguards to ensure that no funding supports such settlements.
MEPs are examining whether there is a way to object to the funding or hold a vote on it. When the funding was referred for member states to give their approval, a large number abstained. This denied the plan the required majority to pass, and returned the matter to the commission. The next steps are unclear.
The reason for the caution is that approving funding for Israel while simultaneously reviewing and delaying aid for Palestine risks further damaging relations with Palestinians and other Middle Eastern states, and compounding the impression that the EU is one-sided on the conflict.