Capping a period of long and difficult negotiations that began nearly two years ago, Israel and the European Union have signed a new accord designed to strengthen their political and economic relations.
Signaling the accord’s importance to Israel, Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres, making his first trip abroad since the Nov. 4 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, flew here Monday to sign the agreement.
“Europe is today offering to be a contributor, not a dominator,” Peres told reporters at E.U. headquarters.
“We look forward to seeing new European involvement in peace” in the Middle East, he added. “You shall see us in your councils of science. We shall see you in our councils of peace.”
The new accord, which replaces a 1975 trade and cooperation agreement between Israel and what was then known as the Common Market, will grant Israel special status to participate in the European Union’s scientific and technological research and development projects – the “councils of science” to which Peres referred.
The accord will also provide for expanded free trade between Israel and the 15 nations comprising the European economic bloc.
Israel hopes that the new accord will help lessen Israel’s growing trade imbalance with the European Union, which stands at $8 billion.
The European Union is Israel’s main trading partner, receiving some 35 percent of Israel’s total exports.
The new agreement – which will need to be approved by the Knesset and the parliaments of the E.U. member states before it becomes effective Jan. 1, 1997 – will allow 90 percent of Israeli agricultural products to be exempt from E.U. tariffs, compared with the current 70 percent.
The accord was reached in July after several E.U. member states received assurances that Israeli imports would not adversely affect their domestic markets.
Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana, who signed on behalf of the 15-member E.U. countries, said the accord took on special meaning in the wake of the Rabin assassination.
“We are confirming once again our feeling of solidarity and support for the family of Rabin, the State of Israel and the Israeli people,” he said.
The accord – signed a week before the scheduled start of a Euro-Mediterranean conference in Barcelona, Spain – is part of an E.U. strategy to create a zone of stability and a vast Mediterranean free-trade area by 2010.
The European Union signed economic accords earlier this year with Tunisia and Morocco.