EU-Israel discord on US peace plan while tension with Iran continues

EU-Israel discord on US peace plan while tension with Iran continues
Handshake between Iran’s President Hassan Rohani and EU High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell in Tehran on 3 February, credit: EU, 2020

The American plan for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was announced on 28 January. A quick glance at the plan showed that it was tailor-made to Israel’s security concerns and deviated on several points from what until now has been the international consensus on the parameters of a two-state solution, especially as regards borders and Jerusalem.

The future Palestinian state would be reduced to a non-contiguous territory in the West Bank, comprising only 70 % of the area and connected by a complicated network of roads, bridges and tunnels. All Israel settlements, including isolated outposts that are considered as illegal also according to Israeli law, would remain. Its capital would be located in a suburb south-east of proper Jerusalem.

A tunnel or road would connect the West Bank with the Gaza strip. With some strange land swaps – a transfer of a triangle of Arab villages inside Israel and two areas in the Negev desert along the border with Egypt - the total area would increase to about 84 %, a far cry from the close to 100 % of the West Bank that the parties had discussed in previous negotiations and almost agreed on.

In Israel, the plan was greeted with enthusiasm by the government and those favouring unilateral Israeli measures in the occupied territories. The plan was supposed to benefit prime-minister Benyamin Netanyahu in the coming parliamentary elections on 2 March but opinion polls do not show any bigger shifts among the political blocks.

Interpretation of peace plan

It took EU about a week to study the plan and come up with a first assessment. Not surprisingly, EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell stated (4 February) that EU continues to be committed to a negotiated two-state solution, based on the 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps, as may be agreed between the parties.

“The US initiative, as presented on 28 January, departs from these internationally agreed parameters. To build a just and lasting peace, the unresolved final status issues must be decided through direct negotiations between both parties. This includes notably the issues related to borders, the status of Jerusalem, security and the refugee question.”

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said that he will propose legislation on annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocks in the West Bank, if he will win the elections. This seems to contradict the US position. Its ambassador to the United Nations stated at the UN Security Council meeting yesterday (11 February) that the plan is a basis for negotiations and could be subject to changes.

“Steps towards annexation, if implemented, could not pass unchallenged,” counters the EU statement. which also reiterates EU´s “fundamental commitment to the security of Israel, including with regard to current and emerging threats in the region”. A Commission spokesperson underlined that Borrell speaks on behalf all member states in his statements.

In an undiplomatic overreaction, a spokesperson of Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs twitted last week that Borrell had been using threating language towards Israel and that such “policies & conduct is the best way to ensure that the EU's role in any process will be minimized”. The Commission spokesperson declined to comment on what he called an interpretation of EU’s position.

In fact, Israel cannot exclude EU if it wants to revive the peace process. The US has disqualified itself as an honest broker with its one-sided “deal of the century”. The Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, rejected the peace plan out of hand at the meeting in the UN Security Council and demanded that any mediation should be done by the so-called Quartet, consisting of US, Russia, UN and EU.

Last week the EU High Representative visited Tehran, Amman, and Washington to discuss the nuclear deal, bilateral relations and regional issues. The Commission spokesperson on foreign affairs told The Brussels Times that while Borrell is active in reaching out by all available means to all concerned countries in the region, he is hesitant to visit Israel for the moment.

“If he goes to a partner country, he needs to have a partner there. There is an election campaign going on in Israel. At this stage, no visits are planned. But no-one is excluded, once there is a government in place.”

EU’s role in the region

EU has been criticized for acting as a payer of assistance rather than a political player. But mediating to solving the many conflicts and crises in the region is an overpowering task, especially if EU member states pay more attention to their own different interests. Not to mention the situation in Libya where a civil war is going on with outside interference on both sides.

The last word in the latest chain of violent incidents between the US and Iran has not been said yet. Experts at a recent policy dialogue on the US – Iran crisis organised by the European Policy Centre in Brussels agreed that Iran’s long-term goal is to oust the US from Iraq and the region. While no country in the region wants war, it can break out accidentally by miscalculation.

In Iraq, the US – Iran incidents have diverted attention from the root causes of the crisis in the country. Hundreds of protestors, in a mass movement never seen before in Iraq’s modern history, were killed by Iraqi security forces when they demanded social justice and national sovereignty.

The situation in Syria, where Iran and Russia saved the Assad regime, is even worse and can spiral out of control if Iran continues to arm Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon. Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of the German based Middle East think tank Carpo, described the tension between Israel and Iran as a “hit and run game” without an end in sight.

He told the Brussels Times that Iran, from its perspective, has been exploring how far it can go in securing ground close to the Syrian-Israeli border region to “further its deterrence capabilities towards Israel”.

“The hostility of Iran towards Iran has nothing to do with religion,” he explained. “It’s first and foremost about what Iran says is the occupation of Muslim land by Israel. I do not see any prospect for this position to chance anytime soon.”

If that is the case, a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would eliminate a reason or pretext for Iran’s hostility to Israel. It could also be the other way around. De-escalation between Israel and Iran over the nuclear deal and other issues such as Iran’s missile program and its support to terrorist organizations could facilitate a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But is it not all clear if any progress was made in the talks between Borrell and the Iranians. Contrary to his predecessor Federica Mogherini, Borrell sees his role as a coordinator or facilitator of the nuclear deal. “If someone wants to enlarge the deal, OK, do it,” he said at a press conference in Tehran. His spokesperson explained that such an initiative would have to come from the signatories of the deal.

Joost Hilterman, program director at International Crisis Group, was derisive about EU’s diplomatic role. A regional conference, similar to the Helsinki process in the 70ies which reduced tension between the Soviet Union and the West, could lead to de-escalation. It should be initiated by a neutral party, start with the Gulf countries and extended later to include Israel and other countries, he summarized.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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