New EU ambassador: We’re not biased against Israel
His children are practically Israeli, he loves hummus and is amazed by the ‘incredible changes’ Tel Aviv has gone through over the past decade. Returning to Israel on a new mission, Emanuele Giaufret tells Ynet the European Union will wait to see what comes out of Trump’s peace plan, but will remain involved in the peace process. ‘We want to achieve a solution to the conflict that is in the interest of both sides,’ he says, admitting Europe ‘needs to listen to the Israelis.’
Although 10-year-old Lorenzo is the son of an Italian-born European diplomat, his reaction was totally genuine. The child was born at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer during his father’s first mission in Israel, when he served as first secretary and a political advisor in the EU mission. “My son is a real Sabra,” Giaufret laughs.
Since that mission, Giaufret’s family has traveled across the world and had two more children: One in New York and the other in Brussels. But Giaufret has a warm spot in his heart for Israel, and he knew he wanted to return. When he was offered the position of senior ambassador, Israel was his top priority.
Why was it important for you to return to Israel? What did you miss?
“I missed several things. I missed the people. I really like the Israeli way of interacting. I think it’s in a way close to my own country, Italy. People like to be together, they like to spend time outside, they like to engage in conversations. They’re very welcoming, they’re very direct at the same time, but you always feel an immediate connection with people and you can connect very easily with people you meet. This is something you don’t find everywhere in the world, and for a Mediterranean like me it’s definitely something that I personally very much appreciate.
“I have to admit, I also missed the sun. Brussels is not necessarily a good place for sun, and this is much better. Living by the sea in Tel Aviv is also a great thing. I was born in a coastal city in Italy, La Spezia, so I’m used to have sea and be able to go and walk by the sea. In Israel, you find a lot of sea, and that’s a great thing.
“Perhaps the other thing I really like here is history. So many layers of history in this country, and people are so much aware of its importance. It’s not even history. Sometimes it’s just the newspaper headlines. But it’s true that you have an incredible heritage of events, of presence of culture and civilization that came through this country, and of course the Jewish civilization is an extremely interesting one that brought a lot to the world. I’m a historian by training, and when I was a kid, I wanted to become an archaeologist. I never made it, but I have a real passion for history—ancient history and modern history—and this is a place where you can basically discover new things on a daily basis.
“I think that the food culture is very close to the Italian one and partly to the French one, to the Mediterranean one. To be able to sit at the table, spending time, enjoying food, having a conversation. And the food and restaurant scene in Israel is very good. You have very good restaurants, and the local food is great, and you see all these different inputs from the Jewish Diaspora who came back to Israel with this cuisine from North Africa and Yemen and input from the Jews that came from Eastern Europe. It makes a unique offer of cuisine. I love hummus, and I’m discovering sabich.”
What has changed in Israel since you left in 2007?
“I think what is striking when you arrive in Israel after 10 years, and when you arrive in Tel Aviv in particular and see the skyline of Tel Aviv, is it’s incredible how things have changed. And you can see that the country in the last 10 years went through an incredible period of economic development, lots of building, a lot of construction that I used to follow when I was away.
“One of things that was striking particularly during those years, when in Europe we were focusing on the subprime crisis, and then the budget crisis in the member states, and the economy was doing very badly in Europe those years—in Israel things were going up and there was always a big plus on the GDP.
“Then when we arrived in Tel Aviv again, I came in July for a few days to look at the practical aspects, and you realize that at least Tel Aviv has changed dramatically. And I think there’s a sense of confidence that came with this economic success that is very clear. The high-tech industry has continued to grow and has become now a model for everyone. There’s a lot of interest in Europe on that.”
Giaufret believes that although there is still mutual criticism, there has been a favorable improvement in the past decade in the way Israelis perceive Europe.
“One thing that is really different is the way people look at Europe and travel to Europe, and this is something that started when I was here, the discussions on the Open Skies agreement. It had an incredible impact on EU-Israeli relations, and I think it had an impact on the Israeli economy, on the European economy, and now the number of Europeans that are coming to Israel is much much higher, but particularly the number of Israeli tourists going to Europe. I think we’re talking about an additional 3 million visitors since 2012, on both sides, and this is because of Open Skies.
“The prices went down by up to 30 percent on average since 2013. The prices are lower and options are higher. Now I think six out of 10 flights are going to or coming from EU destinations. It’s a real change, and I think it will help bring much more understanding between Europe and Israel.
“Between governments, we have a very good understanding on many areas. We know the position of the Israeli government, and we have our own positions, and I think we respect each other. But there’s always a possibility, if you look at bilateral relations, to find solutions, and we hope we will be able to find solutions to move on. Our real interest is to be able to go beyond this and try to exploit the possibilities that we have.
“If you take, for example, the programs on scientific research, we call it the Horizon 2020 at the moment, for that program we did find a pragmatic solution which was accepted by all sides, and I think the results speak for themselves. Israel continues to be an extremely successful participant in the program. We had, I believe, more than 600 projects that were awarded to Israeli entities since it was signed, in the last three years, and 460 million euros that they have received from the program.”
Nevertheless, there is a sense that when it comes to the normalization of the EU-Israel relationship, it stops here. The EU postponed the Association Committee meeting because of the Regulation Law and the continued construction in the settlements, while Prime Minister Netanyahu had the Lithuanian foreign minister invite him to speak to the EU foreign ministers behind EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s back. He also accused Europe of ‘crazily’ undermining itself by not using Israeli innovation due to political issues.
“The High Representative, Ms. Mogherini, is actually committed to have this Association Council meeting, and hopefully we’ll have one soon. On the macro level, there are things that are going on, and actually the interest of the EU to work and benefit from Israeli innovation capabilities has not stopped. I think it’s very much there, both at the level of the EU and the level of its member states.
“At the level of the EU, the Horizon 2020 program is an important indication that from a macro perspective, Israel is part of the family, so much so that Tel Aviv came second as the EU capital for innovation. So Israel, in a way, is an EU capital because Israel is an associated country to the frame of programs. So important things are happening. EU missions come here to start conversations, and this is an indication that this very high level of cooperation we have is going to continue, is there to stay.
"We have a cooperation with the government of Israel on many areas, and we do this through the Twinning project. The EU commissioner for innovation and science was here in the summer, the commissioner for industry was here in September, the commissioner for justice was here in June, and the commissioner for environment and energy was here not long ago and is following very closely the discussions that Israel is having on the gas pipeline. And European Council President Donald Tusk is visiting Israel this month.
“We might have disagreements concerning the way we’ve been dealing with the nuclear program in Iran. We think that the agreement (with Iran) brings an added value. We have a disagreement on how to handle the situation in the Palestinian territories. But it’s a bit normal to have a disagreement between friends. I think we can have discussions on this, but the foundation, the pillars of the relationship, remain very, very solid. Everyone could hope for more.
“I think there are options, so there are untapped potentials in the relationship for sure. But if you look at the facts, we really have a very, very strong relationship, both in terms of government-to-government relationship, in terms of people-to-people contact, in terms of business relationship. We have common values, we have common interests, perhaps a common future development, and these things are really there. There’s a very, very solid foundation.”
So you’re probably a little bit offended when Israelis say that the Europeans are a little bit naïve when it comes to the peace process, when it comes to security and when it comes to you telling us how to do it in those fields.
“Well, one of my personal commitments before I came in was to never get offended, otherwise it might draw you to the wrong conclusions. There is in fact, you’re right, a perception that perhaps we don’t understand the reality in Israel, that we are underestimating the threat, that we are having a different perspective in Europe because life is easier.
“First of all, we need to listen to the Israelis, for sure. I think it’s important that we always keep our ears open and we engage with all the different strands of Israeli society. Israeli society is very complicated and there are a lot of opinions out there, and I think it’s important that we listen to them all and understand where people are coming from. And the fact that they are sitting in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, in Kiryat Shmona or on the border with Gaza makes things different. And we need to understand this perception and we need to be able to communicate this perception to Europe and explain why certain decisions are made, explain why certain statements come out and explain why we might have a disagreement on certain things. So engagement and listening and taking people seriously. I think it’s important that we do and we always did and we have to continue doing it.”
What about a dialogue with the settlers, who are now very strong, including in government and in the public opinion?
“Well, we’re doing a dialogue definitely with people that represent them, that are part of the settlement movement, that have a different perspective on how to handle the West Bank. It’s a component of Israeli society, and whether we agree or not is another matter. We need to listen to everyone.”
Is it legitimate in your eyes that European governments give financial assistance to Israeli and Palestinian NGOs , some of which are doing delegitimization to the State of Israel and IDF soldiers, and threatening to put them on trial in the ICC?
“We fund many NGOs that are working on different issues. Some of them are working on human rights. We are always very careful that we fund NGOs that, for example, are not supporting or actively engaging in BDS activities, incitement or violence. This is something we don’t support. We’re very carefully monitoring the programs and the projects we are funding, so we’re not funding an NGO as such, but we’re funding an activity of the NGO, a project. We know that there is a lot of controversy in Israel on certain NGOs, but we look at the work they do and it’s a project-by-project basis.
“We think it’s important that Israel maintains a vibrant civil society panorama. This is one of the greater things that the Europeans recognize in Israel—that you have a very diverse, active and committed civil society working in different areas, and this is I think something Israelis should really keep. Sometimes you might have issues that are difficult or hard, might polarize opinion, but the possibility of having a complete set of NGOS from left to right that are active in issues that are important to the state, it’s a great thing for Israel and this is something I wish will remain like that.
“We also work with NGOs that are supporting other issues that are not directly related to human rights. For example, on social rights like the right to adequate housing, the Ethiopian community, women empowerment in the economic sector, strengthening the safety on construction sites. It’s an indication of how wide our work actually is and how wide the interest is, and not only focused on peace politics.”
Would you provide funding to a right-wing NGO too?
“If a right-wing NGO applies for a project that is in line with our criteria. We don’t classify NGOs as left and right when we select them, but on the basis of their projects. We have conversations with right-wing NGOs. We receive them regularly, they come with their own ideas and criticism, and we listen and explain.”
What do you have to say to many people in Israel who think the EU is a little bit biased and one-sided and that you are automatically pro-Palestinian?
“The EU is not biased. We want to achieve a solution to the conflict that is in the interest of the two sides, and I think one of the reasons we invest so much in this is because we have strong, warm feelings for Israel and for the Israelis. We’d like the Israelis to be able to live in peace, security and enjoy their life. We also think of course that we should find a way to implement the Palestinians' right to self-determination and allow them to live also a life where they enjoy all their rights. We believe that the State of Israel has a legitimate right to develop, to flourish, to become a strong state that brings prosperity to its own citizens. But we think that this can be achieved in full only if we have a peaceful situation in the neighborhood, and I’m sure a lot of Israelis would agree with that.”
There is a sense that the EU has taken a step back when it comes to the peace process, maybe because you are failing to reach a consensus between the 28 member states after the Brexit, or maybe because you are giving US President Donald Trump a chance to consolidate his peace plan .
“Yes, we are there. You’re right that in foreign policy we need to have the agreement of all the 28, and it’s a process that’s sometimes complicated, but there is unanimity among all member states that we see the two-state solution as the way forward for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is something that we all agree.
“I think we understand how hard it is. It’s a very hard thing to achieve, and it will take a lot of time, a lot of goodwill, and it will require the convinced commitment of all sides, including the Palestinian side. But we have invested a lot in the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are continuing to invest a lot. Ms. Mogherini announced in September a review of the modalities of the EU's engagement to support a Palestinian and Israeli positive outcome of the conflict. This is not to do less, but probably to do more.”
What happens if Trump’s initiative fails? Maybe then you will step in?
“I think it’s difficult to speculate what will happen. We hope it will not fail. We hope he will be successful, and he will bring peace to the region, and then we will be ready to do our part in that. We have already told everyone that whatever solution the two parties would agree on, which will bring peace to the region, there will be a lot of work to be done. It’s hard work and this will not come from day one. So there will be a lot of support that will be necessary from the international community, and the EU will want to be ready to do its part, be it in the economic areas, in the confidence-building areas, in other areas. We will certainly be ready to contribute. We’ll wait for the proposal to come, and then we will play our role together with others to try to help, so that Israelis can live in peace and security in the future.
“On the settlements, we’ve made clear our position and we continue to do so with the government. We don’t think it helps anyone. It’s a clear obstacle to peace, and it’s against international law. We have always said this, and we continue to say the same things to the government. The Americans might have other ways to present their own views.
“We think that if we undermine the possibility of the two-state solution, it’s not in the interest of Israel, of the Israelis, and this is a conversation we’re having, and we will continue to do it. We don’t consider that changing position at this point in time will help anyone, but we can do other things at the same time. The fact that we might have a disagreement on certain issues related to the Palestinian conflict doesn’t prevent doing the other things we’re doing at the moment with Israel and trying to build more trust in our bilateral relations, and working also with the region. I mean, there’s a lot of things happening around us that are important for Israel and for us.”
Are we going to see more steps in the future against settlement building, like we saw in the guidelines that you published for the member states on settlement product labeling ?
“At the moment, there are no discussions on any other steps. I think we made those initiatives in the past because we felt there was a legal problem. But there are no other steps being contemplated at the moment.”
Was that move a mistake? Because it deepened the chasm between Israel and the EU, and eventually nothing happened.
“Yes, that was clearly something that created tensions between the EU and Israel, but it’s a question of coherence. If we say something, we believe that we recognize Israel along the ’67 borders, and we don’t recognize the legality of settlement, so the question is why are you providing funding for those. I think the question was very legitimate, and I think it brought clarity, but I think sometimes we lose the big picture a little bit.
“The goods coming from the settlements are about 2 percent of the volume of Israeli exports, and the big picture is that Israeli goods are actually welcomed in Europe. Last semester, there was an incredible growth of 14 percent in Israeli exports to the EU, so now 34 percent of Israeli exports are going to Europe.
“The goods that are coming from the settlements can always go to Europe. It’s not a boycott. They can export. We don’t treat them as Israeli goods, so we don’t apply the same tariffs, but they can enter and some people might even want to buy them for ideological reasons. It’s a question of the consumer's choice. If the consumer wants to do it, they do it. If they don’t want to do it, they know they can choose a different product. So the impact on trade frankly wasn’t there. If I look at the figures, the impact on Israeli exports to the EU was even positive. The figures are going up, so there’s no boycott of Israeli goods in Europe alone.”
Do you see a possibility that Israel will some day become a full member state in the EU?
“I think it’s something that has been talked about for many years. In a way, it’s a dream for many. Some Europeans have also been promoting the idea. I think for the moment, the EU is in a phase where we’re trying to consolidate our structure, so thinking of such a far-reaching enlargement is not on the agenda at the moment. But I think we have to look at what is doable, and what is doable is to bring Israel much closer to the EU.”
Ambassador Giaufret reveals Israel and the EU are cooperating in the war on terror and exchanging intelligence. “We have a counterterrorism coordinator in Europe that comes very frequently to Israel, and a year or two ago we initiated a counterterrorism dialogue between the EU and Israel. We discussed, for example, how you protect essential infrastructure. Israel has a lot of experience in protecting Ben-Gurion Airport, for example, and we also have to protect our infrastructure, because a lot of terrorist attacks took place either in airports or in train lines, etc. So this is a very beneficial discussion, so we can learn from Israel.
“We can lend experience on the issue of deradicalization and preventing violent extremism, etc. This is the types of conversations that are taking place at an EU level, and we’re going to have another dialogue probably in January, so this is something which is ongoing. I think it’s a two-way street. We’re learning and we’re sharing. There’s the issue of funding to terrorists, and how you prevent terrorist organizations from receiving resources, funding, etc. This is done on the super-national level, and we can share a lot of information, a lot of good practices on these things.”
The ambassador confirms that the EU has informed Israel and the Palestinians that it is prepared to return the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) to Rafah in light of the Palestinian reconciliation.
“We have indicated that we are ready to contribute to this process of reconciliation, which is a very complicated one with a lot of problems still to be solved, but we want to help the Palestinian Authority come back to Gaza as a sole and legitimate authority,” he says. “In that context, we are ready to see whether the EUBAM can play a useful role, if the parties request it, and if the conditions allow. So we have already been in consultations with the Palestinians of course, with the Egyptians, but also with the Israeli authorities, to explain a little bit our thinking and to understand what they consider possible, useful and feasible. So the offer is there, and if the parties request we will do it, but only if it’s a useful thing to do for the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
Before concluding the interview, I remind Giaufret of the presentation of his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin. The ceremony received unusual coverage after his three sons were filmed introducing the dabbing dance to the president.
“So he walked up to the president and he asked for a dab, and he got a very good one. They will never forget that day. I will never forget that day. The situation was so open and President Rivlin created such a nice atmosphere that it was perfectly fine to do that, so my son was happy and everyone was happy.
“My other two sons really enjoy life here. For them it’s easy as young kids to adapt. They’re going to the French school in Neve Tzedek. They started studying Hebrew. When I arrived, my youngest told me: ‘Aba, Aba.’ I said, ‘It means Daddy in Hebrew.’ So they perfectly integrated very quickly in the life here and they enjoy the weather. They can spend more time outside, going to the beach, they have their friends. They don’t miss Brussels.”