Netanyahu faces pressure in Europe amid Jerusalem protests

PM will be urged to renew moribund peace process as he arrives in Brussels ‘lion’s den’ for meeting with EU foreign ministers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara arrive at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on July 1, 2017 before a ceremony in tribute to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl. (AFP/Sebastien Bozon)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara arrive at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on July 1, 2017 before a ceremony in tribute to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl. (AFP/Sebastien Bozon)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face renewed pressure from Europe on Monday to reboot the Middle East’s stagnating peace process following widespread criticism of a US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital.

Netanyahu will be in Brussels for an informal breakfast with EU foreign ministers, who will urge him to “resume meaningful negotiations,” according to the bloc’s diplomatic chief, Frederica Mogherini.

The talks come after French President Emmanuel Macron met Netanyahu in Paris on Sunday and called on him to freeze settlement building and to reengage with Palestinians as widespread protests continued over the US move.

In an address last Wednesday from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

The move was hailed by Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum, though outside Israel it was greeted with almost wall-to-wall criticism. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Speaking alongside Netanyahu on Sunday, Macron again condemned the decision as “contrary to international law and dangerous for the peace process.”

“I urged the prime minister to show courage in his dealings with the Palestinians to get us out of the current dead-end,” Macron said after talks in Paris with the Israeli leader. “Peace does not depend on the United States alone… it depends on the capacity of the two Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do so.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as French President Emmanuel Macron looks on during a joint news conference following their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on December 10, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / PHILIPPE WOJAZER)

Netanyahu has praised Trump’s decision as “historic” and he explained Sunday that Jerusalem “has always been our capital and it has never been the capital of any other people.

“It has been the capital of Israel for 3,000 years, it has been the capital of the Jewish state for 70 years. We respect your history and your choices and we know that as friends you respect ours. I think this is also central for peace,” he said. “The sooner the Palestinians come to grips with this reality, the sooner we’ll move toward peace.”

Before leaving Israel, Netanyahu had taken aim at what he called Europe’s “hypocrisy” — for condemning Trump’s statement, but not “the rockets fired at Israel or the terrible incitement against it.”

On Friday night, Gaza-based terror groups fired rockets at Israel, with two landing in the southern town of Sderot; Israel responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets.

Palestinian protestors clashes with IDF soldiers along the Israel-Gaza border on December 8, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Hamas on Thursday called for a new intifada against Israel, on Friday urged Palestinians to clash with soldiers and settlers, and has allowed thousands of Gazans to confront Israeli troops at the Gaza border fence in recent days. Its leader Ismail Haniyeh on Friday praised the “blessed intifada,” urged the liberation of Jerusalem, and made plain the group was seeking to intensify violence against Israel.

Pointedly, Macron began his preprepared remarks with a clear condemnation “with the greatest of clarity, of all forms of attacks in the last hours and days against Israel.”

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace on December 10, 2017 in Paris. (AFP PHOTO / ludovic MARIN)

Despite the obvious differences between the 39-year-old French leader and the Israeli veteran prime minister, there were also attempts to show they had developed a good early working relationship and held common views.

“Does this mean Emmanuel Macron and me agree on everything? No, not all of it, but we’re working it,” Netanyahu said at one point, joking later: “The lunch in the Elysee is superb, the conversation is superb too.”

The two countries are keen to reset ties after often difficult exchanges under ex-president Francois Hollande.

EU not unified

Netanyahu has previously harshly criticized the European stance on Israel, and an Israeli source in the government on Friday described the prime minister’s trip to Brussels as a venture into the “lion’s den.”

This past summer, Netanyahu was caught in a hot mic moment blasting Europe’s “crazy” policy on Israel. In a closed-door meeting in Budapest in July with the leaders of four Central European countries, Netanyahu said “the European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel, that produces technology in every area, on political conditions.

“It’s crazy. It’s actually crazy,” he said, referring to the EU’s insistence on conditioning some agreements with Israel on progress in the peace process. He referred the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which has not been renewed since 2000.

PM Netanyahu and the leaders of the Visegrad Group — Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland — in Budapest, July 19, 2017 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Most EU members, including the bloc’s biggest countries, have expressed alarm over the Trump administration’s policy shift.

Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, has warned the decision on Jerusalem “has the potential to send us backwards to even darker times than the ones we’re already living in.”

Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Friday, she repeated Europe’s stance that “the only realistic solution” for peace was two states — Israel and Palestine — with Jerusalem as the capital of both and the borders returned to their status before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini talks to the media during a NATO Foreign Affairs Ministers’ meeting held at NATO headquarter in Brussels, December 5, 2017. (THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP)

“It is in Israel’s security interest to find a lasting solution to this decades-long conflict,” she added.

But the 28-member bloc is not unified on the issue; Hungary, Greece, Lithuania and the Czech Republic in particular favor warmer ties with Israel.

Last week Hungary broke ranks to block a joint statement from the EU that was critical of Washington’s Jerusalem shift. The Czech foreign minister on Wednesday said the Czech Republic recognized Jerusalem in the pre-1967 borders. The country’s president, Milos Zeman, on Thursday expressed support for Trump’s declaration, arguing that the Czech Embassy should have been moved to Jerusalem years ago.

Trump’s announcement on Wednesday has been followed by days of Palestinian protests and violent clashes with Israeli security forces across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

Tens of thousands have also protested in Muslim and Arab countries, including Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia. Further protests were held in Lebanon, Indonesia, Egypt and the Palestinian territories on Sunday.

Macron was also asked if France would attempt to launch another peace initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following failed efforts in the past.

“There’s a desire by the Americans to mediate which remains and I don’t want to condemn it ab initio (from the beginning),” he said. “We need to wait for the next few weeks, the next months to see what will be proposed… and I think we have to wait to see whether the interested parties accept it or not.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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