In July of 2011, the Knesset passed a bill―the “Law for Prevention of Damage to State of Israel through Boycott”―that made boycotting Israel a civil wrong and prevented the Israeli government from doing business with companies that sponsor or observe boycotts. In addition to opening up the sticky moral and legal issue of attempting to legislate against freedom of choice, the right-wing MKs who sponsored the legislation set Israel up for future economic difficulties with its trading partners.
One of these trading partners―in fact, Israel's largest trading partner―is the European Union, which, this past July, published new guidelines regarding Israel's settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights. The guidelines stipulate that any Israeli institution or organization desiring funds from an E.U. agency must first submit a statement declaring that it does not and will not operate in the occupied territories. In effect, the new regulations hold that any agreement between the European Union and the State of Israel will apply only within 1967 borders.
But by August the Europeans were already walking back the guidelines, after Israel curbed E.U. aid projects in the West Bank on July 26. “We stand ready to organize discussions during which such clarifications can be provided,” said a spokesman for E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, “and look forward to continued successful E.U.-Israel cooperation, including in the area of scientific cooperation.” That vaunted scientific cooperation has been a hallmark of Euro-Israeli relations since 1995, when Israel became the first non-European state to be accepted as a full member of the E.U.'s Fourth Framework Research and Development program.
These collaborative efforts nearly came to an ignominious end during the past two months, when negotiations over Israel's participation in the E.U.'s Horizon 2020 research program were almost scuttled by the conflict between the new E.U. guidelines and the Knesset's Boycott Law. Horizon 2020 is a Euro-Mediterranean partnership devoted to transnational cooperation in the areas of scientific and technological research.
Israeli and American diplomats have spent the past two months vigorously lobbying the E.U. so as to prevent the boycott issue from extinguishing the region's high hopes for Horizon 2020. These efforts have now apparently succeeded; reports have emerged that a European delegation will visit Israel next week to make assurances that Israel will be permitted to participate in Horizon 2020 without necessarily having to satisfy the E.U.'s new guidelines. If this is truly the case, the E.U. will have skirted both its own rules and, by extension, Israel's Boycott Law.
Why would the E.U. precipitously compromise its moral principles in such a way? It's possible that the European Commission had hoped that the Knesset would blink first: Israel's scientists reacted with alarm to the news that the country might be unable to participate in Horizon 2020. Ruth Arnon, president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, even wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that failure to participate would irrevocably harm Israeli science. That's a blow that Israeli science would not comfortably suffer: Israel has been suffering from a severe brain drain for decades, and more than 14 percent of Israeli science PhD's live abroad. Two of this year's Nobel laureates are Israeli―but both live outside Israel.
What's more likely, though, is that European politicians realized that the European scientific community and economy had just as much, if not more, to lose as a result of an Israeli departure from the Horizon framework. Israel receives more European Research Council grants per million inhabitants than does any E.U. country except Switzerland; Europe, some believe, needs Israeli science.
There are major economic concerns at play as well. Israel has pledged 600 million Euro to the Horizon 2020 initiative; this is money, obviously, that the E.U. would miss were Israel excluded from the framework. To top it off, the E.U. guidelines would have been mostly for show in the first place: only about 0.5 percent of E.U. funding to Israel ends up financing projects in the occupied territories.
The E.U. has tried hard to avoid the appearance of a public rift with Israel over the Horizon 2020 issue, and the negotiations have remained opaque to scrutiny. As such, the true motivations behind the E.U.'s retreat from its July guidelines are unknown. But it seems clear that, at least in this particular case, the E.U. has proven willing to place its economic interests over its moral principles.
UPDATE: This piece originally stated that Horizon 2020's "specific aim is to address the main causes of pollution in the Mediterranean by the year 2020." This is not strictly correct, so that phrase has been deleted in order to better reflect the Initiative's broader scope. The line now simply reads: "Horizon 2020 is a Euro-Mediterranean partnership devoted to transnational cooperation in the areas of scientific and technological research."