The European Union Commission apologized to Israel's Ambassador to the Union, Ron Kuriel, over statements it made earlier this week claiming that the settlement policy was stifling the Palestinian economy and increasing Palestinian dependence on foreign aid – and therefore was costing European citizens in taxes.
The apology was issued after EU Ambassador to Israel Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal was reprimanded by Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Rafi Barak. A senior Commission official told Ambassador Kuriel that the statement released by the head of Operations at the European Commission's office in east Jerusalem
(ECTAO), Roy Dickinson, was issued without the knowledge of EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
The Foreign Ministry said in response that it was satisfied was the apology.
Ambassador Kuriel stressed the severity with which Israel sees Dickinson's statement, saying that the issue was not only the lack of diplomatic manners but also the clear deviation from the Commission's stated role, "which is to coordinate aid with the Palestinians, not arrogantly criticize Israel."
Kuriel was assured that an official communiqué had been issued to clarify that the earlier statement did not reflect the Commission's position.
The original statement caused a storm in Israel and Europe after it was released last Monday. According to the statement, the Commission believes Israel's settlement policy is strangling the Palestinian economy and makes the Palestinian government more dependent on foreign aid – the burden of which falls on the European taxpayer. The European Union is one of the largest donors to the Palestinian Authority.
According to the EU, expropriation of fertile land for Israeli settlements, roads that serve only settlers, and West Bank checkpoints help constrain Palestinian economic growth and make the Palestinian government more dependent on aid.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the Commission out for ignoring a recent World Bank report indicating an improvement in the Palestinian economy. "The Mideast Quartet (US, Russia, EU and the UN) welcomed Israel's plans to improve the Palestinian economy, and recognizes Israel's right to security," the Defense Ministry said.
"Thanks to the cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, 140 (West Bank) roadblocks have been removed over the past few months. These measures may double the growth rate of the Palestinian economy from 5 to 10%. Unfortunately, all of these details were omitted from the European Commission's statement."
US: No change in policy
But while the confrontation on the European front has abated – the US on Wednesday reiterated its demand to see a complete freeze on settlement construction.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly dismissed a report on Wednesday that it had agreed to let Israel build about 2,500 housing units already under construction in West Bank settlements.
"That report in that Israeli media outlet is inaccurate," said after the Maariv newspaper reported that Minister Barak and US envoy George Mitchell had struck such a deal.
Under the arrangement reached in London on Monday, Maariv reported, Israel would be allowed to continue work on about 700 buildings already under construction on the occupied West Bank, or about 2,500 units.
But Kelly said "the bottom line" for US President Barack Obama's administration has not changed, "that all parties in the region have to honor their obligations.
"And you know what our position is regarding settlements... This activity has to stop. This is laid out in the roadmap. So the reports are inaccurate," Kelly said.
He added that Mitchell plans to travel to Israel soon to continue his discussions, adding that his talks with Barak on Monday had been "good, productive." He gave no dates for the planned visit.
AFP contributed to this report