Though world focused on fighting virus, Mideast diplomacy simmers on

ICC, EU delay but don’t freeze discussions about Israel-Palestine, as Israel and US say they’re still working on Trump’s peace plan, including mapping West Bank ahead of annexation

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

European Council President Charles Michel arrives to address a nearly empty press theater after a videoconference with G7 leaders at the European Council building in Brussels, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
European Council President Charles Michel arrives to address a nearly empty press theater after a videoconference with G7 leaders at the European Council building in Brussels, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Earlier this week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world,” urging the world to unite around the urgent need to fight the coronavirus.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said in a statement issued Monday. “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

Sadly, his call to end all wars will likely go unheeded, with experts worrying that the turmoil caused by the pandemic may actually exacerbate armed conflicts. Indeed, terror attacks in volatile countries like Chad, Nigeria and Afghanistan continued unabated this week.

But it is not true that diplomatic processes that have nothing to do with the current public health crisis have come to a halt.

Though many decision-makers across the globe are dedicating most of their energies to the fight against the disease, the wheels of international diplomacy are continuing to grind, albeit slowly and with less media attention.

The UN Security Council, for instance, has stopped meeting in person, but this week it convened — for the first time in history — via teleconference to discuss the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the G7 states of Western powers discussed a wide range of issues, also by videoconference, including the trade war with China, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the Russia/Ukraine conflict, Iran and Afghanistan.

Though it makes few headlines these days, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not entirely disappeared from the global agenda, either.

The International Criminal Court building in The Hague was closed to visitors this week, but that did not prevent its judges from considering — and ultimately granting — a request from the chief prosecutor for more time before she has to submit her view about whether “Palestine” is a state that can confer to the ICC criminal jurisdiction over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Fatou Bensouda’s new deadline is April 30, after which the judges are expected to hand down their ruling on the matter within 120 days. If they rule that the ICC indeed has jurisdiction over “Palestine,” the prosecutor may open a criminal investigation into possible war crimes there by late September.

The court last week shut its doors and instructed most employees to work from home, but continues to strive for “business continuity and the fulfillment of the Court’s mandate,” a spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, November 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The European Union, too, is delaying but not deep-freezing its deliberations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The bloc’s foreign ministers were scheduled to discuss the Middle East peace process in general, and the US administration’s peace proposal specifically, on Monday. But due to the spread of the coronavirus, the planned meeting was replaced by an “informal videoconference” that focused on other issues.

Rather than talking about US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” the ministers discussed “issues that need to be debated with greatest urgency and that is the external implications of COVID-19, Turkey, Syria and Libya,” Peter Stano, the union’s chief spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, told The Times of Israel.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue process will return to the agenda “when deemed appropriate and feasible, hopefully soon, but the current developments around coronavirus are changing plans and schedules on a daily basis so it’s hard to foresee anything more detailed or specific at this stage,” he added.

The fact that the EU’s Foreign Affairs Committee did not discuss the administration’s peace plan, however, does not mean that Brussels is entirely neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Tuesday, the union’s representative office to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip issued a press release announcing that the EU has given 82 million euros to UNRWA, the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, so it can respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Palestinian health workers wearing protective face masks in the courtyard of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) school at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on March 18, 2020, as preparations are underway to receive, examine and isolate victims of the coronavirus. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

“Finding a just, agreed and realistic solution for the Palestinian refugees is one of the internationally agreed parameters for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is quoted as saying in the press release.

“Our support of UNRWA is therefore not only our humanitarian duty. It also helps keeping alive the prospect of sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which, for the EU, can only be achieved through a negotiated two-state solution.”

The EU has expressed skepticism about the White House’s peace plan, which was unveiled in late January, and which stipulates that not a single Palestinian refugee be allowed to settle in Israel. Brussels was particularly critical of the outline giving a green light to an Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank.

Before the March 2 Knesset election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would apply Israeli law to these areas in the very near future. On February 24, he attended the first meeting of the joint US-Israel committee formed to map out the exact areas of the West Bank that Israel plans to annex.

“We will do this as soon as possible,” he promised at the time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury / US Embassy Jerusalem)

This week, Israeli and American officials responded to Times of Israel queries about the committee’s work by indicating that the implementation of Trump’s peace plan has not been frozen, but refused to provide more detail.

“The committee continues to function and continues with its internal work,” according to an official in Netanyahu’s office, who insisted on anonymity.

A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Jerusalem said: “Confronting the COVID-19 crisis is of course the first priority, but we continue to work on the president’s agenda.”

Both officials refused to answer follow-up questions about the specific plans for the committee, including if another meeting is planned.

However, a source in the administration told The Times of Israel that the White House is currently focusing all efforts on fighting the spread of the coronavirus, implying (but not saying explicitly) that Trump’s peace team is not currently thinking about Israel’s annexation plans.

With the world’s attention focused on an unprecedented global public health crisis, some Israeli right-wingers have urged their government to quietly apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, hoping that the timing would dramatically soften the international opprobrium — including possible sanctions — it would otherwise have to expect.

But despite the official assertions that the West Bank mapping committee is going on with business as usual, it seems officials in Washington and Jerusalem will be preoccupied with other things for weeks and months to come.

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