EU to launch diplomatic push to get Israel to ditch West Bank annexation

EU to launch diplomatic push to get Israel to ditch West Bank annexation

Disagreement among 27-nation bloc’s foreign ministers, amid reports some nations favor punitive measures to dissuade Jerusalem from unilateral moves while others urge dialogue

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants a tree during an event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yeriho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants a tree during an event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yeriho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The EU will make a diplomatic push to try to stop Israel going ahead with a plan to annex parts of the West Bank, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said Friday.

Josep Borrell said the bloc would use “all our diplomatic capacities” to try to dissuade Israel’s incoming government from going ahead with the move, approved under US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.

While EU countries are alarmed at the prospect of annexation, which they say would violate international law and harm the chances of peace, they are divided about what action to take against Israel.

“What everybody agreed is we have to increase our efforts and reach out to all relevant actors in the Middle East,” Borrell said after talks Friday between EU foreign ministers.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell addresses a video press conference at the conclusion of a video conference of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, April 22, 2020. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

“We are ready to do that and we will do that in the next days using all our diplomatic capacities in order to prevent any kind of unilateral action,” Borrell said.

The push will involve talking to Washington and Arab countries as well as Israel and the Palestinians, Borrell said.

Israel’s long-awaited unity government will be sworn in on Sunday — after three inconclusive elections in less than a year and a power-sharing agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former rival Benny Gantz.

Some EU countries have pushed for the bloc to take a hard line against Israel, with Luxembourg’s veteran foreign minister Jean Asselborn in particular calling for the recognition of a Palestinian state.

But others have urged caution and dialogue with Israel, which is seen as an important EU partner in the Middle East.

“We are in a dialogue with the responsible parties, including in Israel,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

“We have always made it clear… that we are committed to the goal of a negotiated two-state solution, and that we believe that annexations are not compatible with international law.”

Ahead of the meeting, there were reports that several European nations led by France, and including Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg, expressed support for threats of punitive action in a bid to deter the new Israeli government.

The EU bloc is Israel’s largest trading partner, grants Israel favored trading status, and helps fund Israeli scientific research and development through its massive Horizon 2020 program.

View of the Israeli settlement of Shiloh. November 17, 2016 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Proposed steps include announcing that Israel would be prevented from entering into trade agreements with the bloc, receiving EU grants or participating in other forms of cooperation with the union.

It is not clear if the steps would apply to future agreements or freeze existing ones.

As part of their coalition agreement, Netanyahu and Gantz agreed that the government can begin moving forward with applying Israeli sovereignty to settlements and the Jordan Valley after July 1, a move expected to enjoy backing from a majority of lawmakers in the Knesset.

Though Gantz is believed to oppose unilateral action, he acquiesced to Netanyahu’s demand to allow the matter to be brought to a vote in parliament.

“There is clearly a need to look at what annexation means in the context of international law and we do need to know our options,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters earlier this week. “We also need to say what exactly the consequences of annexation would be, ideally as a way to stop any such move.”

Also key to the discussions will be finding potential punitive measures that would not require the unanimous agreement of all 27 bloc members, as Israel’s allies, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, would likely veto any proposals that require unanimity.

“No one wants to reach the point that Israel’s relations with the union are harmed for the long term, but that’s what will happen if Israel annexes, if only because of the precedent an annexation would set for every other place” where nations are fighting over disputed land, an EU source was quoted by Haaretz as saying.

Annexation of settlements and the Jordan Valley has been a key campaign promise of Netanyahu and his Likud party in recent elections. A plurality of slightly fewer than half of Israelis back the idea, and fewer than a third think the government will actually go through with it, according to a survey of Israelis released Sunday.

The Arvot Hayarden settlement where the Jordan Valley Regional Council municipality is located in the West Bank (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP)

Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank has been met with harsh criticism from nearly the entire international community, including Washington’s European allies and key Arab partners.

In an interview published Friday, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned that should Israel move forward, it would lead to a “massive conflict” with his country, and did not rule out pulling out of Amman’s peace deal with the Jewish state.

Trump’s Mideast peace plan allows for the possibility of US recognition of such annexations provided Israel agrees to negotiate under the framework of the proposal that was unveiled in January.

According to the proposed plan, the US will recognize an Israeli application of sovereignty over parts of the West Bank following the completion of a survey conducted by a joint US-Israel mapping committee and Israel’s acceptance of both a four-year freeze of the areas earmarked for a future Palestinian state and a commitment to negotiate with the Palestinians based on the terms of Trump’s peace deal.

Alone among most governments, the Trump administration has said it will support the annexation of West Bank territory claimed by the Palestinians for an eventual state as long as Israel agrees to enter peace talks.

US Ambassador David Friedman said last week that Washington is ready to recognize Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank should it be declared in the coming weeks.

However, US State Department’s chief spokesperson said Friday, that Israeli deliberations about annexing parts of the West Bank should be part of discussions between Israel and the Palestinians on the Trump administration’s peace plan.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, lands in Israel for a one-day visit on May 13, 2020 (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

The comments by Morgan Ortagus, made during a phone briefing with Israeli reporters, came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a lightning trip to Jerusalem Wednesday for talks with Israeli leaders on a number of issues.

“He [Pompeo] said that annexation is up to Israel,” Ortagus said, stressing that annexation was “certainly, by no means, the reason” for Pompeo’s trip. “We think these discussions should be a part of the peace process, part of President Trump’s Vision for Peace. So it should be part of discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I don’t really have much more to say on it than that.”

Asked directly whether Israel still has a “green light” for unilateral annexation, especially since the Palestinians are proving “unwilling to consider the Trump peace plan,” or whether Israel should put annexation on hold, Ortagus did not give a direct yes or no answer. She said, rather, that the US administration has put out a “comprehensive” peace plan… We’re going to continue to push for this vision for peace that the president has. We have certainly by no means given up hope. In fact it will continue to be a major part of our foreign policy to press for the Palestinians to come to the table as a part of this peace plan, as a part of this process.”

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