Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed the EU’s decision on Monday – some 15 years in the making – to put the military wing of Hezbollah on its list of terror organizations.
The decision to place Hezbollah’s military wing – but not its political one – on the blacklist came at a meeting of the EU’s 28 foreign ministers.
In addition to having a militia with thousands of well-equipped, trained fighters, the organization is also a political party that is part of the Lebanese government.
Israeli officials said that rather than try to press the EU to outlaw Hezbollah’s political wing as well, Israel will be concentrating on ensuring that the decision is implemented.
The move could have far-reaching implications regarding Hezbollah’s ability to raise funds; intelligence cooperation between the EU and countries that recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist group, such as the US and Israel; and EU countries’ abilities to monitor the group’s activities inside Europe. It will also allow EU governments to freeze any assets Hezbollah’s military wing has in Europe.
Netanyahu said that he hoped the decision would now lead to real steps in Europe against the group, and stated that in Israel’s view, Hezbollah was one, indivisible organization.
The prime minister, who last week spoke with a number of European leaders to urge them to blacklist Hezbollah, said that Israel has for years made huge efforts to explain to the Europeans that Hezbollah was an Iranian terrorist proxy operating throughout the world.
“For years, the organization has carried out attacks against innocent civilians around the world. Recently, it has tried to carry out dozens of attacks – some which were carried out – in Asia, Africa, America and Europe, including the murderous action in Bulgaria and the thwarted attack in Cyprus,” he said.
The EU’s decision came just after the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, in which five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed.
In addition, Netanyahu said, thousands of Hezbollah fighters are carrying out war crimes in Syria on a daily basis and taking part in the slaughter in the war-torn country.
Israeli officials said that despite Israel’s intensive efforts over the years to get Hezbollah blacklisted, what tipped the scales inside the EU was Hezbollah’s massive involvement in the Syrian civil war.
“This was not done as a favor to Israel,” one official said.
“We have been working on this for years, but what decided the issue was Syria. The EU sees this more as part of its Syria policy than its Israel policy.”
According to the official, the move now gives the Europeans the ability to say they are doing something about Syria.
The official said the fact that the decision was not connected to Israel is diplomatically beneficial for Jerusalem, because now the EU cannot say that since they took the move, they will want something from Israel in return.
The officials categorically rejected the idea that the decision had anything to do with last week’s publication of new EU guidelines governing engagement with Israeli entities over the Green Line, and said that the Hezbollah decision should not be viewed as a “carrot” the EU wanted to give Israel for having upset it with the guidelines.
Netanyahu, speaking in the Knesset after the decision was announced, added that while he views the European Union’s decision on settlement funding as negative, he knows how to express appreciation when it makes a positive decision.
President Shimon Peres sent letters to European leaders saying this was a necessary and significant step.
“Your decision sends a clear message to terror organizations and the countries which harbor them that their murderous actions will not be tolerated,” he wrote.
The decision came despite concern voiced in many EU capitals over the years that this move could fuel instability in Lebanon and the Middle East.
Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said the decision was “hasty” and could lead to further sanctions against the movement that would complicate Lebanese politics.
“This will hinder Lebanese political life in the future, especially considering our sensitivities in Lebanon,” he said. “We need to tighten bonds among Lebanese parties, rather than create additional problems.”
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the designation of the military wing as a terrorist organization “will do nothing to affect the EU’s and the UK’s strong relationship with, and support for, Lebanon. As we have shown by our recent large increases in security and humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, the UK remains deeply committed to Lebanon’s stability.”
To soothe concerns by some EU governments that this would harm relations with Lebanon, the EU ministers agreed to make a statement pledging to continue dialogue with all political groups.
“We also agreed that the delivery of legitimate financial transfers to Lebanon and delivery of assistance from the European Union and its member states will not be affected,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Washington- based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the decisions “still ignores the evidence, including statements from Hezbollah’s own leadership, that Hezbollah is not a two-winged organization neatly divided between political and military arms.”
Dubowitz, a leading expert on sanctions targeting Hezbollah and Iran, added that “the US government, working with Congress, now needs to use its designation and secondary sanctions authority to target all of Hezbollah’s political, commercial and charitable entities in Europe and elsewhere which masquerade as legitimate players. By designating and identifying these entities, the US can lay the predicate for an expanded set of measures to encourage Europe to target Hezbollah in its entirety.”
“Washington and Jerusalem should also use the Hezbollah designation to encourage Europe to take the next logical step and designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, including their terrorist arm the Quds Force, who are Hezbollah’s masters. Regardless of who is the Iranian president, they remain the long arm of the Iranian terrorist, nuclear and human rights threat,” said Dubowitz.
“There’s no question of accepting terrorist organizations in Europe,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said in a statement that the EU had taken an important step by “dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has openly called on the EU to take this step, applauded the move.
“A growing number of governments are recognizing Hezbollah as the dangerous and destabilizing terrorist organization that it is,” he said.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz all praised the move.
Avigdor Liberman, the head of the Knesset’s Foreign and Defense Committee, was more critical, however, saying that the EU – by listing only the military wing of Hezbollah on the terrorist list – was “as usual” only going “half the way” and making a decision that was “not enough.”
“The military and political wings of Hezbollah are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “To present it as if part of the organization is extreme, and part is moderate, is like the question whether a cannibal can be vegetarian.”