Interview'Netanyahu, Hamas might not be interested but the world is'

EU envoy: Peace efforts can be advanced even if parties not currently interested

Sven Koopmans speaks to ToI about Brussels’ plans for a Preparatory Peace Conference, in which global actors will advance proposals for a comprehensive solution to the conflict

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The European Union’s Middle East peace envoy Sven Koopmans in, August 2022. (YouTube screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
The European Union’s Middle East peace envoy Sven Koopmans in, August 2022. (YouTube screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A top European Union official has offered new details regarding Brussels’ effort to host a “Preparatory Peace Conference” with regional stakeholders in order to advance a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict.

The initiative is part of EU Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell’s 10-point roadmap for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which was leaked to the press in January.

In an this week interview with The Times of Israel, the EU special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Sven Koopmans indicated that the confab envisioned by his boss will fall short of the international peace conference long sought by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“A big conference where everybody is expected to be present at the same time is currently unlikely to succeed. But what you can work on is a Preparatory Peace Conference where you bring together everyone — perhaps some in separate rooms and at variable times,” the EU envoy said.

Through the Preparatory Peace Conference, Brussels aims to build off the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative — which offered Israel full normalization with its Arab neighbors if it agreed to a two-state solution on the pre-1967 lines — and the Abraham Accords normalization deals, which saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

Koopmans said the conference would also be an extension of the “Peace Day Effort” that the EU co-hosted with Saudi Arabia and the Arab League on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.

“That doesn’t on its own give you the Israeli and Palestinian peace agreement, but it gets us a lot closer by showing what regional peace can look like in practice,” Koopmans said.

The EU official acknowledged that a ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and a release of the hostages being held by the terror group were all but necessary for the conference to take place, but he insisted that the current Israeli government’s opposition to a two-state solution need not be the final word on the matter.

Palestinians walk through the destruction from the Israeli offensive in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Essa)

“It’s a very normal — albeit old-fashioned — approach to say peace isn’t possible because there is no partner, and then to do nothing,” Koopmans said.

“Maybe [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu does not want it and surely Hamas doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world does not want it or that the rest of the world cannot do anything to bring it about,” he asserted.

Those comments echoed to an extent comments made by Borrell in January when he suggested a two-state solution might need to “be imposed from the outside,” without Israel’s agreement.

Borrell, in a speech at the University of Valladolid in Spain, said then that without international intervention, the “spiral of hate will continue generation after generation,” according to Spanish media outlets. “The actors are too opposed to be able to reach an agreement autonomously,” Borrell said. “If everyone is in favor of this solution, the international community will have to impose it.”

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell arrives at a Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on February 19, 2024. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

Koopmans was more guarded, saying: “Of course, we cannot ultimately have peace without Israeli and Palestinian leaders signing up for it, but we can effectively prepare the ground.”

He acknowledged that Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught and the Gaza war that followed have complicated peace efforts. But he argued that now was the time to pursue such efforts, with global attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a peak.

The European diplomat said any plan would not be immediately implementable, but at the same time rejected a multi-year effort aimed at achieving a resolution to the conflict.

“The EU is not interested — I am not mandated to be interested — in a roadmap that leads us to five years down the line, when we know that this roadmap is never going to be completed,” Koopmans said.

He said the two conflict parties would be invited to the preparatory conference, but it need not be considered a failure if they refuse to show because foreign ministers from Europe, the Middle East and other countries interested in offering incentives for the parties to reach a two-state solution will be attending.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at an evening press conference, February 29, 2024. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“At the conference, you adopt a working plan to develop all the components of a comprehensive regional peace. This is different from the old-fashioned model — the Camp David model — where you have the Israeli leader and the Palestinian leader brought together by the American president,” Koopmans maintained.

Conference attendees will begin work on regional cooperation projects in a variety of fields that can be adopted on the day that a peace deal is reached between Israel and the Palestinians.

Koopmans pointed to the package of political, economic and security incentives that Brussels unveiled in 2013 to help support the peace negotiations being led by then-US secretary of state John Kerry. “I now have the mandate to build on that package and to explore what is possible also with Jordan, Lebanon and other main regional actors.”

In the interview, Koopmans also accused Israel of subjecting humanitarian aid for Gaza civilians to political negotiations.

“It’s a violation of international law to use humanitarian assistance as a variable, as it is to use hostages as a political tool. That goes against everything we stand for,” he said.

Israel insists that there is no limit to the aid that it is prepared to facilitate for Gazan civilians, and largely blames the UN for failure to supply aid through Gaza’s crossings.

IDF soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released March 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The UN has said it is becoming more difficult to distribute aid amid a collapse in security. Meanwhile, aid organizations claim that the restrictions Israel has put in place have significantly limited the volume of assistance that can enter the Strip. Even after managing to enter the enclave, much of the aid has not been delivered due to the breakdown of law and order in Gaza. Hamas police have refused to secure convoys after Israeli troops have shot dead nearly a dozen officers, deeming them legitimate targets.

Israel has reportedly offered to expand aid into northern Gaza as part of the hostage deal currently being negotiated.

Displaced Palestinians gather for food in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on February 28, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Koopmans said that “humanitarian assistance, which is saving the lives of innocent civilians, cannot be made subject to political negotiations — [in which Israel agrees to allow more food in if Hamas agrees to certain conditions], even more [so] when the other side, in this case, is a terrorist organization.

“How can you say, ‘We’re not going to feed these starving children unless that terror organization does something?’ It’s not just a matter of humanity and values, even though these are very important. It’s also a matter of international law.”

Hours after the interview with Koopmans, dozens of Palestinians were killed while rushing an aid convoy in aid-deprived Gaza City. Hamas authorities claimed at least 115 Palestinians were killed by IDF fire during the aid delivery.

The military has vehemently contested the claims and said most of the casualties were caused by a stampede as crowds swarmed the trucks, and by being run over by supply vehicles. Gunmen also opened fire in the area as they looted the supplies, it said.

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