The EU has congratulated the new Israeli government and looks forward working with it despite deep concerns about its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. After the start of yesterday’s trial against prime-minister Benyamin Netanyahu, EU will have more reason to worry.
The trial against Netanyahu opened on Sunday (24 May) at a district court in Jerusalem and was quickly adjourned until 19 July when the prime-minister will not have to be present any longer. He used the opportunity, before the start of the court proceedings and surrounded by his most loyal ministers, to lash out against the law enforcing authorities and the “leftist” media for framing him.
The government was formed on 17 May, following indecisive elections (2 March) and broad unwillingness to new elections for the fourth time in 1,5 year. The country’s Supreme Court ruled (6 May) that there was no legal basis to disqualify acting Prime Minister Netanyahu from forming the government despite being indicted for breach of trust, fraud and corruption.
The ruling was adopted unanimously by all 11 members of the court after a two day’s televised session where the judges accepted that the issue whether Netanyahu was fit for the post was admissible. Although the supreme court was reluctant to consider the ethical aspects of the case and to take a more pro-active judicial role, as it used to do in the past, the last word is not said yet.
After 1,5 years, if the government lasts until then, Netanyahu is supposed to be replaced by his coalition partner Benny Gantz, who currently acts as “alternate” prime-minister” and defence minister. In due time, the court will have to decide if existing legislation banning indicted ministers from serving in the government is applicable to an “alternate” prime minister.
Next crucial date, not the least for EU – Israeli relations, will be 1 July. After that date, the government may decide to submit a legal proposal in the parliament to declare Israeli sovereignty over up to 30 % of the occupied West Bank. The step, which in practice means annexation, might jeopardize Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, threaten the Israeli-Jordan peace treaty and definitely kill the two-state solution.
Netanyahu’s appearance before the trial looked like the start of a new election campaign where he claimed that the whole rightist camp is on trial. Eager as he might be to leave his legacy by annexing territories, that he and his followers regard as part of the historical homeland, he might still hesitate before the brink.
The annexation is foreseen in president Trump’s peace plan, the “deal of the century”, but even the American administration opposes unilateral measures. The agreement of the 16th April between the two political blocs, Likud and Blue White, does also include some caveats.
It states that the prime-minister and his alternate shall work together and in a coordinated way to promote the peace agreements with all Israel’s neighbours. They shall also work in full agreement with the US, while “pursuing Israel’s strategic and security interests, including the need to preserve regional stability, the (current) peace agreements and the pursue of future peace agreements.”
A unilateral decision would contradict everything of this and the new Israeli foreign minister, Gaby Ashkenazy from Blue White, seems aware of it. On the one hand, he said (18 May) that Trump’s plan offers Israel a “historical opportunity”, on the other hand he quoted the conditions in the coalition agreement.
EU on its part has been very clear as regards its position. Directly after the formation of the new Israeli government, High Representative Josep Borrell said that “international law is a fundamental pillar of the international rules-based order”. EU and its member states recalled that they will not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders unless agreed by Israelis and Palestinians.
“The two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the future capital for both states, is the only way to ensure sustainable peace and stability in the region. We strongly urge Israel to refrain from any unilateral decision that would lead to the annexation of any occupied Palestinian territory and would be, as such, contrary to International Law.”
In a previous statement (23 April), Borrell conveyed the same message. 11 ambassadors from EU member states and the EU delegation to Israel have also handed over a letter to this effect to the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) refused to disclose the content of the letter to The Brussels Times but a spokesperson underlined that the statement by Borrell was supported by a huge majority of the member states and had not been disputed by any of them. The EU would need to show a united front against the Israeli government’s annexation plans.
The government will reject any outside criticism against its policies as anti-Israeli or even antisemitic as some of its far-right members have done in the past. In fact, the EU reiterated “its fundamental commitment to the security of Israel” in a statement by Borrell last week (21 May), when he condemned the threatening remarks of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against Israel.