Foreign minister says EU has no intention of ostracising Israel

Foreign minister George Vella reiterates that Malta is neither pro-Israel, nor pro-Palestinian, but pro-peace

George Vella visited Gaza last week
George Vella visited Gaza last week
George Vella with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
George Vella with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
George Vella (right) with Avigdor Leiberman
George Vella (right) with Avigdor Leiberman

Foreign minister George Vella reassured Israelis that the EU has no intention of “ostracising” the Jewish State in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.

In a lengthy interview with the centre-of-right Israeli newspaper, Vella faced a number of tough questions by journalist Herb Keinon on Malta and the EU’s position on the perpetual Middle East crisis.

In recent days there has been growing concern in Israel about the EU’s tougher stance on the situation in Israel and the occupied lands.

The European Union’s new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini said that she wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of her five-year term, noting that “with Europe being the biggest donor to the Palestinian territories, it is important that the billions of euros being spent are not being wasted on futile settlement prospects, but real change”

Last week, Vella visited Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and Jordan where he held talks with a number of officials including the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, prime minister Rami Hamdallah and Israel’s ultra-rightwing foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman.  

The Jerusalem Post wrote that the interview “sheds light on the thinking on Israel at this particular moment inside Brussels’s corridors of power. And the picture revealed by this light is far from encouraging.”

Vella did not shy away from criticising Israel’s “disproportionate reaction” in this summer’s Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip, when more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were also killed.

Asked whether the EU wants to negotiate redlines with Israel about what is permissible in the West Bank, Vella said “let me be honest with you, the EU was shocked by what happened in the last attack on Gaza, which went beyond the acceptable. It was disproportionate.”

While making it clear that Israel has a right to defend itself from rockets fired indiscriminately into Israeli territory, Vella said “the disproportionate reaction of [Operation] Protective Edge, with thousands of people killed and injured, was something nobody could explain. Why should one go that far?”

This he said, had led to a shift in the foreign policy of European countries, such as Sweden, who this week rubber stamped the new government’s decision to recognise Palestine as a state.

“This is why there is this change of attitude in European countries. Protective Edge took people by surprise, what we saw on television, the reports coming in, the number of people injured, the killing of civilians and children – that shocked a lot of people,” he explained.

Challenged to explain whether Israel should refrain from reacting to rocket attacks from Gaza, Vella admitted “this is a very difficult question” and went on to recount how a woman who lost her husband during the conflict showed him where the rockets fell in a Kibbutz he had visited the day before.
But pressed on whether Israel had reacted disproportionally, Vella said the perception from the outside was that the death toll and number of casualties on the Palestinian side were shocking.
“Yesterday we went to Gaza. I cannot imagine what happened to the people who were under that ruble. I was in Gaza in 2009 and went through Rafah at that time, and I saw people living under rubble and tents, but this time it looks much, much, much worse. I am not trying to be critical, I am being factual,” he said, adding that innocent people in Gaza are living under harrowing conditions which are unacceptable.

However, Vella was also critical of the Palestinians and called on the Hamas and Fatah leaders to “get their act together” and urged the different factions to “speak with one voice, unite, have good leadership and decide that this is not the way to go.”

Asked whether Israel was solely responsible for the situation, Vella said that both the Israeli government and Hamas should shoulder responsibility.

“I think both are responsible. The situation came to a point where this happened. I am not being judgmental. I am just looking at the end result. As a doctor I am trained not to blame you for falling, but treating your wounds,” Vella said.

The veteran minister warned that if Palestinians shirk from their responsibilities all efforts by the EU to reach a lasting peace agreement would be futile.

That is their responsibility. Whether they shoulder it or not at this point in time is up to them, but we are watching,” he said.

He also warned Israel to stop the construction of new settlements, which Vella said are compromising the peace process.

But the EU is not considering imposing any sanctions, Vella said, adding that there has been talk of labeling products from the settlements in Brussels.

“I have heard about declarations and conclusions, but definitely not breaking away from Israel. It is unthinkable. Even if 10 or 15 of the EU countries wanted to do that, the way we work is by consensus, and countries like Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands would never [agree]. This is not the way we think about Israel,” he said.

Insisting that there are no hard feelings against Israel in Malta or the EU, Vella reassured his interviewer that “there’s no talk of ostracising Israel.”

Answering the interviewer’s claim that Malta is one of the difficult countries for Israel in the EU, Vella saidNo, it is not true. Our policy is that we are not pro-Israel, not pro-Palestinian, but pro-peace.”