JERUSALEM, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Israel has bowed to European Union demands to deny funding eligibility to Israeli scientific enterprises operating in Jewish settlements, removing a key obstacle to finalising a deal for a multi-million dollar research programme.
The struggle over Israel’s participation in Europe’s prestigious Horizon 2020 is widely seen as a prelude to further tensions expected ahead over wider EU economic sanctions against the settlements expected to take effect in 2014.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said she had struck a compromise with EU head Catherine Ashton to try to rescue the funding and avert the risk of wider Israeli diplomatic and academic isolation if the deal had not passed.
Negotiations went down to the wire ahead of a Dec. 1 deadline, with far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet resisting EU demands to expressly deny its funds for the first time to Israeli projects in Israeli-occupied land.
Israel had worried the sanctions could hurt universities and research centres with facilities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel annexed East Jerusalem as part of its capital after capturing it in a 1967 war, in a move never recognised internationally.
Livni said she struck a compromise with Ashton that softened the programme’s restrictions by permitting Israel to specify in a note that it objects to Europe’s policy.
“The Europeans don’t want their money in settlements and that’s their right, but Israel expressed its position that it doesn’t accept this European position,” she told Israel Radio.
Had Israel not compromised, some 2,000 scientists could have lost funding, Livni said, adding Israel also risked loss of its prestige as a “start-up nation” also known as a high-tech hub.
“We would have isolated ourselves,” she said.
The EU’s main demands were met by the deal, EU representative in Israel, Faaborg-Andersen said. “There will be no EU funds spent in settlements, and that is the key for us.”
The EU, like most of the world, sees Israeli settlements built in occupied territory Palestinians want for a state as illegal, but the limits to science funding are the first the EU has imposed on such cooperation launched with Israel in 1996.
Further steps against the settlements are expected next year with the EU’s Executive Commission announced plans to bar financial assistance to any Israeli group operating in the West Bank from 2014.
Horizon 2020 calls for dividing up some 80 billion euros in matching funds among promising scientist applicants over seven years.
Israel, the only non-European partner in the project, is expected to provide a billion euros, and receive 1.5 billion back for its scientists.
Zeev Elkin, Israel’s far-right deputy foreign minister, vowed to seek compensation for scientific enterprises in settlements losing out to any European funding restrictions. (Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Ralph Boulton)