While praising Benjamin Netanyahu for being bold in his peace efforts and for seeking to prepare the Israeli public for compromise, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel said the prime minister had made the wrong decision in agreeing to release long-term Palestinian prisoners as part of the current negotiations.

In an interview, Lars Faaborg-Andersen said that “had the EU been asked to advise Israel on which of the three positions [sought by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] to accept as the basis for discussion — accepting to discuss [Palestinian statehood] on the [basis of the pre-] ’67 lines; accepting a settlement moratorium, or releasing 104 pre-Oslo prisoners — I know which two of those the EU would have pointed the Israeli government to take. You didn’t do that,” he said. “That’s your own sovereign choice. You also have to deal with the consequences.”

Bolstering the critique, Faaborg-Andersen said, “The fact that these pre-Oslo prisoners are being released and coming back and being treated as heroes, is at the outset facilitated by you, because you are releasing them.”

The ambassador was being interviewed (by this writer) at an event organized by the Europeans for Israel group, held Tuesday evening in the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem. Robustly rejecting the notion that Europe was disproportionately critical of Israel, he said the EU had “basically only one quarrel with Israel as far as the peace process is concerned, and that is the settlements,” which he said were “particularly destructive for creating the kind of confidence and negotiating environment that is necessary to succeed.” The EU, he noted, considered settlements to be “illegal under international law and unhelpful on top of it.”

Palestinians celebrate at the welcome reception for released Palestinian prisoners, at the Muqata'a in Ramallah, in the early hours of Tuesday, December 31, 2013 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Palestinians celebrate at the welcome reception for released Palestinian prisoners, at the Muqata’a in Ramallah, in the early hours of Tuesday, December 31, 2013 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

He likened ongoing settlement expansion during the peace process to “starting to eat a cake while you are discussing how to slice it,” and said the European public saw it as “a bit underhanded to continue expanding settlements in the territory which is subject to negotiations.”

Israel, he advised, “would do itself a big service by putting a freeze on settlement expansion, particularly during a time of serious negotiation.”

Faaborg-Andersen, who first came to Israel as a kibbutz volunteer in his youth and decades later as a senior Danish diplomat, drafted an initial version of the George W. Bush-era Road Map for peace when Denmark held the rotating presidency of the EU in 2002, called the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian accord much better today than they had been then.

Abbas is ‘a very old man and there is no certainty that he would be succeeded by anyone who has a similar commitment to a peaceful solution’

He said there was a greater realization on both sides now of the need for a solution, and that “one needs to take the Palestinians at face value when they are saying they would like to have their own state.” However, no Palestinian leader wants to go “down in history as a traitor,” he said — though he later mused that “maybe ‘traitor’ is not a good word” — and Israel’s “best guarantee for security is to give the Palestinians a reasonable deal that will stick and will not immediately create dissatisfaction and frustration among the [Palestinian] public.”

He said time had not been working in the Palestinians’ favor, and that the Palestinians bore much of the blame for this, noting that the original partition plan “was roughly a 50-50 sharing of the British Mandate” territory, and now the Palestinians were seeking statehood on 22%.

Asked to address widespread Israeli concerns about Abbas’s credibility as a peacemaker, the danger of Islamic extremists taking control of the West Bank, and the genuine readiness of the Palestinians for abiding peace with Israel, Faaborg-Andersen said that with Abbas, “you know more or less what you have and what you would get.” But “he’s a very old man and there is no certainty that he would be succeeded by anyone who has a similar commitment to a peaceful solution.”

He said Abbas was not omnipotent and “needs to be cognizant of what the internal market in Palestine can bear in terms of a compromise. There are certain limits to what he would be able to accept.” Abbas “is accountable to a constituency, as politicians in this country are accountable to a constituency.”

The ambassador offered several further reasons why Israel should “move decisively on this issue now,” including a “commonality of interests between Israel and some of the Sunni Muslim states” in confronting Hezbollah, Iran and other dangers. And he stressed Israel’s own “democratic, demographic challenge: Israel wanting to realize its aspiration as the home of the Jewish people and ensuring the self-determination of the Jewish people within the Israeli state.”

He said he fully understood Israel’s security concerns, noted that “the EU wants Israel to live behind safe and defensible borders,” and suggested that international peacekeepers could play a role in the West Bank, notably on the potentially vulnerable border with Jordan. NATO peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan and other places had performed successfully against what he envisaged were far bigger challenges than such forces might face here. But in any event, he said, while the US and EU sought to help resolve security concerns, it was up to the parties themselves to find a solution.

“The prime minister has put down some clear proposals on security; they are currently subject to discussion between the parties. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an insurmountable obstacle.”

‘We are not participating in paying any stipends or any kinds of salaries for martyrs or any of their families. One can argue that if [the PA] didn’t get our money, they wouldn’t be able to pay that money out of their pocket, but these are some of the things we have to live with

He argued that the rise of Hamas in Gaza stemmed “to a very large extent” from the fact that Israel had withdrawn in 2005 without an agreement. The unilateral withdrawal “allowed Hamas to step up as the big liberator,” he said. “That is a very bad precedent” and the reason “why we pin all our hopes” on a negotiated solution.

The ambassador highlighted what he called the EU’s determination to help Israel in the peace effort, recalling that late last year, EU ministers “put on the table a very strong political signal to Israel. We said if the current negotiations are crowned with success, we are ready to provide Israel with a Special Privileged Partnership. This is no mean offer from the EU side. What we’re talking about is the next best thing to membership. It’s a status akin to Norway and Switzerland, across a gamut of areas — security, politics, economics, trade, science and technology, and so on. The message to Israel from our side is that you are not alone on this. There is an international community that is willing to back you and support you in this process because we know this is an existential decision that carries risks for you as well, and we would like to assist you as much as possible in trying to reduce these risks to a manageable and acceptable level.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a peace conference in Washington, D.C. on September 2, 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at a peace conference in Washington, DC, on September 2, 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Questioned on Abbas’s hardline positions at the negotiating table, including the demand for a right of return for Palestinian refugees, the ambassador noted that Abbas “got a lot of heat back home” for a 2012 Channel 2 interview in which he said in English that he did not feel he had the “right” to return to his town of birth, Safed, in northern Israel. He said Abbas and Netanyahu were “both being very bold,” in that they were “running into strong opposition on some of their views.”

Netanyahu, he said, “is trying to prepare the Israeli public for a possible compromise.” Abbas “is trying to do the same thing,” he argued.

Questioned about ongoing EU funding of the PA, even as it pays out large sums of money to jailed terrorists and to the families of dead terrorists, he said the EU did impose conditions on its funding, with “close monitoring and transparency” and that “problematic transactions” were followed up. “We are not participating in paying any stipends or any kinds of salaries for martyrs or any of their families,” he said. “One can argue that if [the PA] didn’t get our money, they wouldn’t be able to pay that money out of their pocket, but these are some of the things we have to live with.”

He said the EU was providing about €1 billion a year to the “Palestinian state-building project” and had made clear to Abbas that “time is running out for them as well.” In the long-term, those funding levels would not be sustainable, he warned.

The ambassador noted, however, that if the EU halted its funding, “the State of Israel would have to dole out considerably more money in order to keep peace and quiet on the West Bank.” He also hailed the security cooperation between Israel and the PA, that had provided Israel with the security it deserves in the West Bank.

The relative economic prosperity in the West Bank “has put a considerable damper on discontent and therefore potentially also on violence,” he said. “I’m not sure that situation would necessarily prevail if one were to see a pulling out of donor funds from the area. Not that I’m saying you would have a third intifada or anything like that. But I think that the level of instability and the level potentially of violence would be higher.”

Finally, asked about ostensible double standards in that the EU works with Morocco despite its occupation of the western Sahara and Turkey despite its presence in northern Cyprus, but will not work with Israeli institutions based in the territories, Faaborg-Andersen said “every legal situation is different. The situation as regards western Sahara and northern Cyprus cannot be directly compared to the situation in the West Bank.”

Broadly speaking, the EU cooperates with Israel within the ’67 lines, he said. “The settlements are not part of Israel’s internationally recognized borders. Therefore they are excluded from our cooperation program.”

He added, “We allow products from settlements to come onto the European market but they don’t enjoy the benefit of coming in at reduced customs rates or no customs rate because our agreement is with Israel. And since they don’t form part of Israel they don’t enjoy the customs preference that normal Israeli products are enjoying. If that’s called a boycott or considered a sanction, I must say I don’t understand it.”