Watching the Watchers

In 1995, the European Union’s Barcelona Conference launched the grand-sounding Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, a massive effort encompassing the countries of North Africa, Israel, Syria and Jordan. The main objective was to establish economic and political frameworks to stabilize the Arab regimes; the second goal was to compete with the US in Arab-Israeli peace making after Oslo.

Both missions failed. But in the process and through a very large budget, the EU built alliances with a number of highly politicized NGOs. Through frameworks such as Partnership for Peace and the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, and via delegation offices in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Amman, the EU began bankrolling dozens of NGOs, including the Israeli B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and Adalah and the hard-core Palestinian political NGO, Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ), a hard-core Palestinian political NGO receiving close to €1 million annually. This NGO funding was and still is decided in great secrecy and without external oversight.

Within post-Cold War Europe, NGOs, known collectively as civil society, are seen as important contributors to the democratic process, providing alternative voices which are, in theory, untainted by party politics and narrow interests. To this end, select NGOs active in EU member states receive an estimated two billion euros annually from government budgets – a huge amount by any standard.

But not all this funding goes towards strengthening European democracy; the Barcelona framework extended the relationship between EU governments and NGOs to the very different realm of foreign policy –especially with regard to the complex Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Engagement with a narrow group of political NGOs became a substitute for direct EU interaction with Middle Eastern governments and the wider political spectrum. Thus, the EU-NGO relationship took the form of policy outsourcing or subcontracting, particularly as EU experts and resources in this realm are very limited compared to major countries like the US, UK, France and Germany.

This outsourcing and mutual dependence is critical to understanding the ways in which EU officials in Brussels promote their objectives, interests and prejudices regarding the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP in EU-speak), which have remained unchanged in the two decades since the Barcelona conference. For officials in the European External Action Service, these NGOs are the main point of contact with Israeli society. By making connections, writing reports and providing analyses, NGO officials fill in for the missing EU capabilities, while hundreds of NGO employees, in turn, get EU funding. This creates a kind of vicious circle – the EU funds NGOs which confirm EU biases and then get more EU funding.

This process reinforces the biases already held among many EU officials, based on the images of Palestinian victimization and overwhelming Israeli power, without counter-views or more nuanced and complex analyses. The Israeli NGO recipients of EU funding are almost exclusively associated with the fringes of the Israeli left, including many fierce critics of government policies. This built-in bias is a central factor in pushing right-wing Israeli politicians in efforts to curtail the influence and scope of European NGO funding.

An examination of official EU documents and policies clearly reflect NGO influence on the most sensitive and complex issues, including Jerusalem, the status of Israel’s Arab minorities, construction in Area C of the West Bank, “settler violence” and criticism of Israeli responses to terror attacks. The policy process often begins with documents from the emissaries of the EU and its member states, known as “Heads of Mission” (HoM) reports, and these are then taken up by various EU bodies in Brussels, including the Foreign Affairs Council, under the leadership of the EU’s foreign minister – currently Italy’s Frederica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

In many cases, the analysis and even the exact wording of NGO reports and the HoM texts are reflected in EU statements. For example, reports on Jerusalem accuse Israel of “systematically undermining the Palestinian presence,” repeat claims of “deterioration on the ground,” unjustified home demolitions, and discrimination in health, education and housing.

The section entitled “Planning Demolition, Evictions and Displacement” closely resembles a document produced by a fringe group – ICAHD, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions. From 2010 to 2012, ICAHD received €169,661 from the EU. Of the 10 issues discussed in this section, eight are directly attributable to ICAHD, one to another left-wing Israeli NGO, Ir Amim, and one to a UN body allied with the same NGOs. Similarly, in criticizing archeological digs and restorations in Jerusalem, the EU relies on reports from a European-funded political NGO known as Emek Shaveh.

In HoM reports on Jerusalem and accompanying recommendations, no information is presented that is inconsistent with the positions of the political advocacy NGOs selected for EU funding and for policy analysis. Additionally, the EU documents do not include other sources which portray a more nuanced picture, including efforts by the Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality to improve conditions for Palestinian residents. Similarly, there is no evidence that EU officials sought to verify the NGO narratives, either through third parties, or via the Israeli government and officials from the Jerusalem municipality.

The EU HoM reports on Area C contains significant factual errors in accusations that Israel is “undermining the Palestinian presence.” For example, the draft document cites the Ma’an Development Center (a Palestinian NGO) in putting the 1967 population of the Jordan Valley at “between 200,000 and 320,000” and in asserting that “as of 2009 the population is approximately 56,000.” These numbers are far from accurate – the Jordanian census of 1961 counted 63,980 residents in the region and the Israeli census of 1967 counted 9,078 residents. Far from a “minor” error, this egregious 30-fold exaggeration both manifests and perpetuates bias.

Furthermore, issues that are outside the NGO agendas and do not reflect the Palestinian narrative are largely erased from these documents. There are EU reports that focus on “settler violence” and “illegal Israeli construction in Area C,” but not on Palestinian incitement or violence. The list of NGOs funded by the EU and consulted in the HoM reports do not include any group looking at these key dimensions of the conflict.

On Jerusalem, the systematic harassment of Jews on the Temple Mount and the rocks that are stored in the mosques and hurled in confrontations are also absent from these EU reports. Similarly, the Jerusalem municipality’s information on housing construction for Palestinian residents, and provision of services such as schools and hospitals – which differ fundamentally from claims by European-linked political NGOs such as Ir Amim and Terrestrial Jerusalem – are also missing from EU policy documents.

The exaggerated role of political NGOs in EU policy-making is also reflected in measures such as product labeling, seen by many in Israel as a manifestation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). These measures are designed to force Israel to withdraw from the post-1967 territories, including the Golan. Indeed, a number of NGOs funded by the EU are among the leaders of the BDS movement, and press intently for product labeling.

For many of them, however, the goal is not merely withdrawal but the elimination of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. For many years, the EU provided large amounts for the Israeli NGO known as the “Coalition of Women for Peace,” which designated targets for global BDS attacks, including Soda Stream, G4S, Caterpillar, Ahava and even Max Brenner chocolates. In other words, while EU officials proclaim their opposition to BDS, the cooperation with and funding for NGOs promoting BDS continues.

For all of these reasons, the unique and unhealthy mutual dependence that has developed between the EU and the narrow group of Israeli and Palestinian political NGOs needs a detailed review. Twenty years after Barcelona opened this door, there are no visible benefits, despite the very major and ongoing investment.

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, is president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor and author of “EU Foreign Policy and the Role of NGOs: The Arab-Israeli Conflict as a Case Study,” recently published in European Foreign Affairs Review.

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