Europe Steps In to Pressure Israel

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart Salam Fayyad have both been scrambling earnestly to win the backing of European leaders in advance of what could be a major EU policy shift that aims at creating new impetus for Palestinian-Israeli peace prospects.

The incipient European initiative, inspired by Sweden, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU, calls for the division of Jerusalem and the recognition of occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.

Noting that Europe has never recognized Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem – a position shared by the rest of the international community – the draft European document states, "If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the capital of two states."

The Swedish draft strongly criticizes Israeli policies in East Jerusalem.

Stung by the leaking of the document to the liberal Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz last week, the Netanyahu government reacted sharply, lambasting the initiative for risking grounding any imminent peace talks. "The Swedish move damages Europe’s ability to play a role and to be a significant factor in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," declared the Israeli foreign ministry.

The draft also hints that the EU would recognize a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence if direct peace talks with Israel fail.

The wording is careful, though, not to say when such recognition would come: "The EU reiterates its commitment to support further efforts and steps toward Palestinian statehood and to be able, at the appropriate time, to recognize a Palestinian state."

Over the weekend, Netanyahu put through urgent calls to several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero.

According to sources in the prime minister’s office, Netanyahu was asking "those leaders who have traditionally adopted a pro-Israeli stance" to oppose the Swedish-initiated plan, and instead to pressure the Palestinian Authority to renew negotiations with Israel "without precondition."

In contrast, seeking to encourage the EU to adopt the Swedish blueprint, Fayyad invited a group of heads of European delegations in the West Bank to his office in Ramallah where they were exhorted not to desist in face of Israeli pressure.

And, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said in an interview with the Saudi daily al-Watan that the PA was garnering Arab support to convince the Europeans of the wisdom of their taking the lead, especially given the absence of tangible U.S. peace moves.

Whenever Middle East peacemaking goes into a slough, international mediators customarily shuttle frantically between the parties in a bid to find alternative ways of bringing them together so as to stave off the threat of renewed hostilities.

This time, unilateralism seems to be the name of the game.

For once, it was sparked by the Palestinians: first, President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to resign, thereby creating the specter of a dangerous vacuum of power in the West Bank.

Then, Fayyad let it be known that he was already working on making his Palestinian state-building endeavor more tangible with a planned approach to the UN Security Council that it adopt a resolution outlining the Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders.

At that stage, Netanyahu apparently realized he too had to make a move.

The U.S. administration has been preoccupied with what to do next in Afghanistan and how to cope with Iran’s unrelenting nuclear ambitions and its rejection of Western overtures for a negotiated agreement on its uranium enrichment program.

With Washington’s conflict-resolution policy floundering, and in a bid to preempt what some in the administration had already been hinting would be Obama’s next move on the Israeli-Palestinian front – unilateral action to define the borders upon which the conflict must be resolved – Netanyahu unilaterally announced his partial and temporary freeze on settlement construction.

Without the inclusion of East Jerusalem, the moratorium, however, did not succeed in prodding Abbas back to talks.

That was the opportune moment for the Europeans, waiting all the while in the wings to launch their own unilateral diplomatic "icebreaker." They are presenting their draft as their own diplomatic effort to strengthen the Palestinians in order to encourage them to return to the negotiating table.

Behind the scenes, diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing continues within the EU itself.

Sweden, with active support from Britain, Ireland, and Belgium, is reportedly standing firm on its original formulation calling for recognition now of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

France, on the other hand, is said to be pushing for a formula in line with what President Nicolas Sarkozy said in the Israeli parliament two years ago – that Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine without any specific reference to any re-division of the city.

Whatever formula the EU finally adopts, Israeli commentators close to Netanyahu note that he may soon be forced to realize that his partial settlement-freeze gambit has not in fact alleviated Israel’s increasing diplomatic isolation.

Several are even predicting that the Israeli leader may have no alternative but to go out on a limb and repeat the kind of unilateral "saving" policy adopted by his predecessor Ariel Sharon in 2003 when he pulled Israeli forces and settlers unilaterally out of Gaza.

It is ironic that Netanyahu should be considering following in Sharon’s footsteps, suggests Aluf Benn in Ha’aretz:

"Netanyahu resigned from the Sharon government on the eve of the Gaza withdrawal. Since then he has constantly reiterated that the future of the territories will be decided only through negotiations for a final status settlement.

"But the construction freeze has generated a rift with the settlers, without producing renewed negotiations with Abbas nor any sudden rush of love from President Obama. Netanyahu needs a way out."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.