EU foreign ministers set to tackle stalled peace process

High-level meeting comes amid drive in European capitals to recognize Palestine, increased irritation over building in East Jerusalem

Federica Mogherini speaks as she visits a UN-run school in Gaza on November 8, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)
Federica Mogherini speaks as she visits a UN-run school in Gaza on November 8, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)

EU foreign ministers will meet Monday to review the situation in the Middle East, amid a growing sense of exasperation in the bloc over Israel’s continued building of new homes in East Jerusalem.

Diplomats at the high-level meeting in Brussels will also be under pressure Monday to hit Russia with fresh Ukraine sanctions after a fraught G20 summit on top of bidding to get the peace plan back on track.

New European Union external affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories earlier this month, has condemned plans for new housing in East Jerusalem as undercutting a two-state peace deal and as raising questions about Israel’s commitment to a settlement.

Last month, EU member state Sweden took the drastic step of officially recognizing Palestine as a state, in what it said was a move meant to push the both sides back to the negotiating table after talks flamed out spectacularly in late March.

Last month, the UK Parliament recognized the state of Palestine in a symbolic vote, and French and Spanish lawmakers are set to do the same later this month.

Israeli officials have rejected the moves, characterizing them as unhelpful.

“I think that the calls that have been coming from European countries, from European parliaments, to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state pushed peace backwards,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference in Jerusalem with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier late Sunday.

In an earlier meeting with Steinmeier, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman did not address recognition of Palestine directly, but referring to the upcoming foreign ministers summit warned that linking Israel-EU relations with the peace process “does not contribute to stability, normalization or strengthening ties between Israel and the Palestinians.”

He also said that Israel would never limit construction in East Jerusalem.

Ministers at the EU meeting are not expected to pass sanctions on Israel, though reports have indicated the EU Foreign Affairs department is considering them .

Brussels is not only brandishing the stick; it is also offering carrots. Were Israelis and Palestinians to make peace, the EU has promised to grant both parties a “Special Privileged Partnership” — a significant upgrade in ties that would include financial, political and security assistance.

Since taking office, Mogherini has made her position on the need for a Palestinian state clear. Speaking to five European newspaper earlier this month, she said she wanted to see Palestinian statehood by the time her term ran out in five years.

Elsewhere on the world stage, Western leaders in Brisbane over the weekend slammed President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s “unacceptable” intervention in Ukraine and said Moscow faced more punishment as a result.

The West would keep up the pressure for years if necessary, to get Russia to reverse course, said British Premier David Cameron who branded Putin a “bully”.

Analysts said the exchanges plus Putin’s early departure from the summit do not bode well for resolving the crisis, with neither side apparently now interested in maintaining even a semblance of politeness.

On Sunday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his country was “prepared for total war” as fighting continued around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

All of which puts Mogherini, formerly the Italian foreign minister, in the spotlight as she chairs her first foreign ministers meeting Monday.

Sanctions vs. outreach

Diplomatic sources said last week Mogherini wanted to find a way of getting Moscow to live up to commitments it made when backing a Kiev-rebel peace plan in September.

The question “will be how to secure peace on the ground, to ensure all the agreements in the (September Minsk protocols) are respected,” one EU diplomatic source said.

Mogherini had sent a letter to ministers asking how this could best be done, whether they wanted her to pursue “outreach efforts,” perhaps including going to see Putin, the source said.

She wanted ministers to state their views “not only on the situation but also on how we should move on from here,” the source added.

Other diplomatic sources said sanctions would be discussed but they would likely be limited at this stage to adding individuals to the list of those already hit with travel bans and asset freezes.

Getting those initial sanctions agreed by the 28 member states proved extremely difficult amid deep divisions about their effectiveness, cost to the EU and impact on future relations with Russia.

Britain for example took a hard line, since continued, demanding tough economic sector sanctions while Germany and Italy, with major trade and traditional political ties with Moscow, were reluctant.

The tragic shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane in July, blamed on rebel’s using a Russian-made missile, notably changed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mind and Berlin went along with sanctions on Russia’s defense, energy and finance sectors.

But having gone that far, there appears little appetite to go further.

No move either way

“There is still a high degree of agreement in terms of (current) sanctions. There is a consensus that we will not move in either direction at the moment,” one EU diplomatic source said.

The EU position on its Ukraine sanctions, repeated at several summits, is that it will review them regularly in light of developments on the ground.

Merkel last week pointedly said that while the EU was considering adding names, “beyond that, further economic sanctions are not planned at the moment.”

In Brisbane, she was cautious, saying after lengthy talks with Putin that it was “important to take advantage of every opportunity to talk.

“There is a close agreement among Europeans about Ukraine and Russia,” Merkel added.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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