Jean Asselborn is the closest thing Europe has to an elder statesman. He is the continent’s longest-serving top diplomat, having been Luxembourg’s foreign minister for the last 16 years; and he is widely respected in the European Union’s foreign affairs milieu, with an influence over its international relations in inverse proportion to his tiny country’s size.
He has long been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, and in recent weeks assumed the role of one of the EU’s most vocal opponents of Israel’s plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank — second perhaps only to the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
Asselborn, 71, was behind an unsuccessful effort to issue a joint EU statement warning Israel against such a move, and has reportedly urged his colleagues to recognize a Palestinian state if Israel goes ahead with its plan to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank — the 30 percent of territory allocated to Israel under the Trump administration peace plan.
He has also been a fixture in the media speaking out against annexation, including taking his case straight to the Israeli people with interviews in the Israeli press.
“An annexation would be contrary to the security interests of the whole region, including Israel,” Asselborn said Monday at a virtual meeting of EU foreign ministers with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Now is the time for urgent concerted action to preserve the prospect of peace.”
In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel earlier this month, Asselborn didn’t just warn that annexation constitutes a violation of international law, but suggested that it may well be a violation of divine law.
“In the Middle East, which is strongly shaped by religion, one could also say that an annexation violates the seventh of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not steal. An annexation of parts of the West Bank would be just that: stealing,” he said.
Asked by The Times of Israel this week if he truly believes Israel would be violating the Ten Commandments by asserting sovereignty over the Jewish people’s biblical homeland, Asselborn did not back down.
“I am not an expert in theology, but I think that in all cultures and religions, there is a well-established norm against theft. This is one of the basic norms of human coexistence and a fundamental principle of international law. The acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible,” he said.
“Notwithstanding the Ten Commandments,” he added, “seizing territory by force is a violation of Israel’s obligations under the UN Charter as well as the Geneva Conventions, and goes against a host of UN Security Council resolutions.”
I am not an expert in theology, but I think that in all cultures and religions, there is a well-established norm against theft
Asselborn, who also served as Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister between 2004 and 2013, confirmed that his country would recognize a Palestinian state if Israel went ahead with annexation. Recognition of Palestinian statehood “would send a strong signal in defense of international law, and would contribute to creating a slightly less unequal situation between the two parties,” he said.
While declining to discuss possible sanctions against Israel, the senior diplomat warned that annexation would create a situation in which it would become increasingly difficult to distinguish between Israel proper and areas the international community does not recognize as part of sovereign Israel. And this would “make it very difficult for the EU and Israel to enter into future agreements and implement existing ones,” he said ominously.
Annexation may also result in a “one-state reality, made of unequal rights and perpetual conflict” replacing the two-state solution, Asselborn said. “A struggle for statehood would then evolve into an anti-apartheid-like struggle. Regardless of what comes next, this cannot be the answer.”
The Luxembourg foreign minister’s office had agreed with The Times of Israel to a telephone interview for Thursday morning but asked to be sent the questions in advance. Upon receiving them, his office decided to cancel the scheduled conversation on short notice and submitted Asselborn’s “personal answers to the questions” instead.
What follows is the entire Q&A.
The Times of Israel: You have said several times that Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank is a violation of international law, and indeed “theft.” Some pro-Israel advocates take great offense to such an assertion, arguing that the Jewish people have a legal right to the territory, based, inter alia, on the 1920 San Remo Conference. Could you please explain how exactly applying Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank amounts to theft? What international law or treaty makes the West Bank “Palestinian territory” that Israel can be accused of stealing?
Jean Asselborn: I believe theft is generally defined as taking something from someone by force, and against his will. Applying Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank — which is another way of saying annexation — is exactly this: it is taking from the Palestinian people a territory that Israel has occupied by force.
According to international law, the UN Charter and relevant UN resolutions, in particular UN Security Council resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973, the West Bank remains under Israeli occupation and the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible.
In a recent interview, you went as far as citing the Ten Commandments. Do you really think that Israel would be violating one of the Ten Commandments by asserting sovereignty over the Jewish people’s biblical heartland, to which it has undeniable historic links?
I am not an expert in theology, but I think that in all cultures and religions, there is a well-established norm against theft. This is one of the basic norms of human coexistence and a fundamental principle of international law. The acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible.
Notwithstanding the Ten Commandments, seizing territory by force is a violation of Israel’s obligations under the UN Charter as well as the Geneva Conventions, and goes against a host of UN Security Council resolutions.
You have been comparing the possible annexation of the West Bank with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But even Josep Borrell acknowledged the other day that the two situations cannot be compared, because no one currently has sovereignty over the West Bank, as opposed to Crimea, which everyone agrees (except Russia of course) belongs to Ukraine. Luxembourg does not currently recognize a Palestinian state, so how can you argue that Israel applying sovereignty over this territory is comparable to the Crimea situation?
Annexation is not a matter of legal, theological or philosophical debate. It is a matter of principle. I use the example of Crimea to illustrate this principle: annexation is against international law and must be opposed, whenever and wherever it occurs. While Luxembourg recognized Israel in 1949, it is true that Luxembourg does not currently recognize a Palestinian state.
However, we firmly believe in the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, to live in peace and dignity in their own sovereign and viable state. By opposing annexation, we are defending this right. It is also important to acknowledge what the Palestinians think about occupation and annexation. Their political rights will not disappear miraculously in case of annexation.
The EU responded to Russia’s annexation with sanctions. Are you in favor of sanctions, or other less dramatic punitive measures, against Israel if annexation takes place? What kind of steps do you think would be appropriate for an annexation of the Jordan Valley and all other settlements across the West Bank, as PM Netanyahu currently says he plans on doing?
As I have said many times, I do not want to speak about sanctions. On the contrary: we in the European Union have an interest in maintaining and further developing the longstanding friendship between Israel and the EU.
However, this has already been made difficult by the ongoing occupation and illegal settlement activities, and I fear this will be even more difficult in case of annexation. Our relationship will be put under severe strain if Israel decides to go ahead with annexation.
Would your view on sanctions/punitive measures change if Israel were to opt for a partial annexation, for example of only the Jordan Valley or one or several settlement blocs (which everyone agrees will be part of Israel in any conceivable future peace agreement)?
As I said before, we oppose annexation as being contrary to international law. A partial annexation is still an annexation and therefore not somehow more acceptable. The Palestinians have repeatedly stated that they are open to minor border modifications and the exchange of territory equivalent in size, volume and value.
The UN Security Council underlined in its resolution 2334 of December 23, 2016, that it will not recognize any changes to the June 4, 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations. And I don’t think what we are currently witnessing is in any way agreed or based on negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
According to some, any substantial EU countermeasures against Israel would be blocked by Brussels’ requirement for unanimity. Can the EU theoretically exclude Israel from next year’s Horizon Europe program, or change the preferential tariff treatment for Israeli imports, or ban the import of settlement goods, if one or several countries oppose such steps? If so, what could Brussels do that does not require consensus of all 27 member states?
Again, as I said before: I want to further develop our relationship with Israel, but international law, as reflected in UN Security Council resolution 2334, requires states to distinguish in their dealings with Israel between the territory of the State of Israel and the territory occupied since 1967.
One could say that a creeping annexation is already taking place. De jure annexation will make it very difficult for the EU and Israel to enter into future agreements and implement existing ones
Our own EU guidelines say that any agreement with Israel must clearly stipulate its inapplicability to the territories occupied since 1967. What we are seeing is that the continuation of the illegal settlement policy by the Israeli government is making it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two.
One could say that a creeping annexation is already taking place. De jure annexation will make it virtually impossible to make such a territorial distinction and thereby make it very difficult for the EU and Israel to enter into future agreements and implement existing ones. This would create a “lose-lose” situation that is in nobody’s interest.
One possible response to annexation would be recognition of Palestine as a state by individual EU member states. I believe you already said that Luxembourg would take such a step. How do you think such a mostly symbolic move would contribute to peace? Shouldn’t the recognition or non-recognition of a state depend on objective criteria regarding the requirements of statehood and not on what another state is or is not doing?
The recognition of the State of Palestine in the 1967 borders would send a strong signal in defense of international law, and would contribute to creating a slightly less unequal situation between the two parties. It would also demonstrate our support for the two-state solution, which we believe is the only just and sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Will Luxembourg encourage other EU countries to follow its example and recognize a Palestinian state?
This is something that every state must decide on its own, in accordance with its own national procedures. However, it is clear to me that recognition by a single member state would not make much of a difference.
Our national parliament voiced its support for the recognition of the State of Palestine in December 2014 and invited the government to go ahead with recognition at the time deemed most appropriate.
In my view, the most appropriate time would be when a group of EU member states would be ready to take the step to recognize the State of Palestine. This would send a strong signal of support for the two-state solution.
You recently said in a statement that annexation “would deal a fatal blow to the two-state solution.” Indeed, more and more actors in the international community believe that such a move would make impossible the future creation of a viable Palestinian state and kill once and for all the two-state paradigm. Do you envision your country, and others in Europe, ever dropping the two-state solution and replacing it with the notion of one unitary state between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, with equal rights for all?
The two-state solution based on the internationally agreed-upon parameters is the only solution that can provide a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. These parameters cannot simply be abandoned or replaced unilaterally. They are the result of political negotiations that led to an international consensus.
However, over the past decades we have seen the physical feasibility of the two-state solution and the viability of a Palestinian state being eroded by Israel through construction and expansion of settlements, demolitions, confiscations and forced displacement, which are all illegal under international law, especially the fourth Geneva Convention.
The international community has collectively failed to prevent this, while the Palestinians are unable to oppose those developments that undermine their future state.
Now there is a serious risk that the two-state solution could be replaced with a one-state reality, made of unequal rights and perpetual conflict. A struggle for statehood would then evolve into an anti-apartheid-like struggle. Regardless of what comes next, this cannot be the answer.
Such a one-state solution would spell the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state, but many European countries have never formally endorsed Israel’s desire to be recognized as a Jewish state. Do you recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in which all citizens have equal rights, regardless of religion and ethnicity?
How Israel wishes to define itself is for the Israeli government and the Israeli citizens to decide. In a democracy, all citizens should have the same rights, regardless of ethnicity or belief.