Israel's Illogical Grudge Against the European Union

Cutting Off Scientific Cooperation Simply Doesn't Make Sense

Banned: Is Israel being to rash in turning on the EU?
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Banned: Is Israel being to rash in turning on the EU?

By Leonard Fein

Published August 20, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
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A mystery: At first blush, Israel’s irritation with the European Union is perfectly understandable. The EU has informed Israel that it must explicitly state that any EU-Israel partnership agreements are not applicable to the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem. The new guidelines restrict any scientific collaboration, investment or the awarding of grants to institutions with direct or indirect ties with settlements in the three named areas. That is the sharpest practical rebuke to its settlement program that has been levied against Israel.

Practical? Well, for example, Israel is the only non-EU country invited to join in Horizon2020, a seven-year EU research and development project. Its participation would cost Israel some 600 million Euros — and would return to Israel about 900 million Euros. But Israel’s stated umbrage at the EU guidelines suggests that it may refuse to enter into any agreement if that agreement incorporates the guidelines. As important, according to Ruth Arnon, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences, “Giving up on Israel’s participation in the program would be an irreversible step that would do significant damage to Israeli universities and industry.”

One measure of the importance of the relationship between Israel and the EU is that Israel receives more research grants per capita from the EU than any other country. Ah, you are thinking, that is because Israel is so much smaller than the EU countries; per capita is therefore the wrong way to count. But: Israel’s population is about 8 million — while some EU members are much smaller. Cyprus is a shade over 1 million. Croatia logs in at 4.5 million, Estonia at 1.3 million. Bulgaria, at 7.6 million, is only a tad smaller; Denmark stands at 5.6 million, Finland at 5.3 million, Ireland at 4.5 million, Latvia at 2.3, Lithuania at 0.3, Luxembourg at 0.5, Malta at 0.4 and Slovakia at 5.4. The EU has 28 members; Israel, in terms of population, is larger than 12 of them. We are so accustomed to thinking of Israel as tiny that such figures may well come as a shock.

There is, in fact, a still more interesting footnote to the story, one that renders Israel’s sharp response to the EU a bit mysterious. In 1972, the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation was established as the main body promoting scientific cooperation between the U.S. and Israel. The BSF is a major player — some would say the major player — in encouraging scientific cooperation between Israeli and American scientists. It has awarded nearly $500 million to fund 7400 scientists working on 4000 research projects at 375 institutions. It disburses roughly $15 million annually. And right there on its web page, in the section on eligibility, it says, “According to agreements between the U.S. and Israeli governments, projects sponsored by the Foundation may not be conducted in geographic areas which came under the administration of the Government of Israel after June 5, 1967 and may not relate to subjects primarily pertinent to such areas.”

In other words, the boycotting of the West Bank — of all territory beyond the Green Line, which was the de facto pre-1967 border — has had ample precedent. And it has been accepted almost routinely by Israel itself, notwithstanding a 2011 law that prohibits participation in such boycotts. That law, called the Law Preventing Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott, defines a boycott against the State of Israel as deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or body solely because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage. Violation of the law is a civil (not criminal) offense, but the person who commits such an offense is liable not only for actual but also for punitive damages that are independent of the actual damage, if any, caused.

In response, Americans for Peace Now (of which I am a proud board member) has formally declared that it will boycott products made in settlements, as has its sister organization, Shalom Achshav, in Israel. But there is, of course, a slippery slope problem here: What can we say to those on the Left who move beyond calls for boycott, who endorse disinvestment and sanctions? And what do we say to those on the right, who refuse to treat Jewish West Bank projects — e.g., the city of Ariel — as different in any way from cities within the Green Line? (According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he of no preconditions, “Israel will remain in Ariel forever.”)

Life is, alas, full of slippery slopes. The antidote? Check Google listing for anti-slip shoes. (I just did, and found 5,130,000 entries.) Myself, I do not call for a boycott of Ariel; like many in Israel’s cultural community, I just won’t go there.

Contact Leonard Fein at

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