Who Knew What When

Behind the Scenes of the E.U. Settlement Announcement

How the E.U. announcement to cut ties with Israeli projects in the West Bank caused an uproar. Noga Tarnopolsky reports on who knew about the guidelines and when.

As starchy as they sound, the new European Union "guidelines on Israel and E.U. funding instruments" have the makings of a Chaplin-esque slapstick comedy.To begin at the end, it appears that Secretary of State John Kerry, while working feverishly to announce the resumption of Israel-Palestinian peace talks late last week, had no knowledge of the European motion. And the Europeans, as they prepared the document, were oblivious to progress made by Kerry and his team. "About the timing," one European diplomat said, "the thing is that it was not done on purpose. We didn't plot to issue it two days before Kerry would announce his deal. It looks a bit weird, but there were no political considerations here. It was very sensitive timing. And nobody really noticed it apart from two or three member states."

For days, Jerusalem has been consumed with momentous questions such as, Who knew what when? And who hid what from whom? Did or didn't E.U. High Secretary Catherine Ashton know about the upcoming "earthquake" when she met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in late June? "Did she hide it from him? Did she hint and he missed it?" mused a well-placed Israeli official.

Did she allow Netanyahu to make a fool of himself, demanding the E.U. scuttle a now inane-sounding condemnation of Israel for West Bank construction while concealing crucial new developments from him? (Yes, but not quite, is the European answer to this question. It was "too minor an issue" to be discussed at that level.) Netanyahu's office pushed the theory that Ashton herself was kept in the dark by European factotums working in hidden burrows. (No way, say European diplomats. "She knows what is happening.")"It wasn't only Israel that was hit with this out of the blue," the Israeli official said. "This is the work of bureaucrats who worked on it behind the back even of the ministerial level in Brussels." European diplomats confirm that E.U. foreign ministers were not informed of developments, "but that's just normal," one said. "They received notification ten days ahead of publication, as usual."

E.U. representatives claim Israel was informed of the notice—it is not actually a "directive," as initially reported—ten days ahead of time, as were the ministers. But Jerusalem came alive to its existence only three days ahead of time, when, as one Israeli official says, "they slapped it down on the desk in Brussels, with no time for us to react." Did the Europeans in fact neglect to properly inform the Israelis? Were Israeli diplomats asleep at their desks? These are the great debates of our time.

The mess occasioned an unusual eruption of mudslinging in Jerusalem. The Prime Minister's office, which has all but declared war on the Foreign Ministry, took the inevitable route and openly blamed the beleaguered ministry for the monumental foul up. Netanyahu has refused to name a foreign minister since taking office in March, keeping the seat warm for his coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman, who is currently on trial. As a result, there is no minister available to schmooze other ministers about goings on in their back benches, and the ministry has no cabinet-level representative at budget negotiations.

Israel's diplomatic corps is currently on strike. Further eroding the Foreign Ministry's ability to act, Netanyahu appointed his crony, Yuval Steinitz, the former finance minister, to the previously non-existent post of Minister of International Relations. Foreign guests have by and large refused to meet with him. With the foreign ministry blaming a clueless Netanyahu and the prime minster's office blaming a debilitated foreign ministry, it clearly was time for the Europeans—who started it all—to step in and claim their own place in the sun.

The Israelis, they said, are overreacting. "Everybody in the E.U. was surprised by the fuss it provoked," said a European diplomat with knowledge of the proceedings. "We knew it would be problematic, but nobody expected such a hurricane."

"Ashton," he added, "of course was aware."

Another said he believed "the Israelis were looking for the opportunity to have a bit of a bust up with the E.U. and this gives them the opportunity."

The new guidelines, scheduled to go into effect in January, 2014, may in fact have little to no practical effect. Less than 1 percent of E.U. funds currently find their way to institutions in the occupied territories, and it took less than a week for Germany to publicly distance itself from the guidelines.

The main lesson to learned from the debacle may be that the E.U. and Israel are inconceivably alien to one another, as if deep-sea, unknowable creatures. (Also, that any future Ashton-Netanyahu meeting is likely to be even more excruciating than previously thought possible.)

The E.U. brouhaha finally does little more than show us the diplomatic arena in the form of a television melodrama, in which elegantly attired civil servants, sometimes with comically pompous titles, play out arcane dramas laced with subterfuge and settling of scores that have little or no bearing on the world outside.

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Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Kerry labors discreetly and stubbornly, this week displaying nerves of steel.