EU tries to breathe life into Middle East peace talks

EU Observer (Link) - Andrew Rettman (December 8, 2009)

The EU has attempted to breathe new life into Middle East peace talks by calling for Israelis and Palestinians to share the sacred city of Jerusalem.

�If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states,� EU foreign ministers said in a joint statement on Tuesday (8 December).

Formal peace talks ground to a halt last year with the fate of East Jerusalem at the heart of the problem.

East Jerusalem is home to over 200,000 Muslims and the third holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa mosque. But it is also home to sacred sites in Judaism and a growing community of more than 180,000 Jews. It has been under Israeli occupation since 1967, with Israel claiming it as part of its �indivisible� capital.

The EU statement on Tuesday is less provocative than earlier drafts put forward by the Swedish EU presidency, which had called for East Jerusalem to be handed to a new Palestinian state.

It contains Israeli-friendly language, such as taking �positive note� of an Israeli decision to freeze expansion of some settlements on occupied land.

And it makes no mention of internal EU recommendations to impose economic sanctions on products made in �illegal� settlements but labeled as Israeli-origin and imported to the EU at preferential customs rates.

The softer tone is a diplomatic victory for a bloc of EU states, including Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, which felt that antagonising Israel would be counter-productive.

�Now is not the moment to have a new wall in Jerusalem,� a French diplomat told EU Observer, while describing the EU ministers� discussion on Tuesday as �painful.�

The EU statement still contains plenty to irk the Israeli authorities, however.

It restates the position that �the European Union will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem� and that �it has never recognised the annexation of East Jerusalem.�

The EU also underlines that �settlements, the [Israeli] separation barrier where built on occupied land, demolition of [Arab] homes and evictions are illegal under international law� and calls for all Israeli �outposts� in the West Bank built since 2001 to be �dismantled.�

In an indication of the sensitivity of the subject, many ordinary Israelis bristle at the EU�s use of the word �settlement� to describe old Jewish neigbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

Even left-wing Israeli commentators worry that to start large-scale dismantling of Jewish colonies could lead to civil war in the country.

Commenting on the media furore caused in Israel by leaked drafts of the EU statement over the past 10 days, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said it was an encouraging sign of the EU�s political importance in the region.

�It�s demonstrated that the voice of Europe does count,� he said. �That our voice carries greater weight than we were perhaps aware of.�

The EU language was welcomed by the Palestinian side. �This is a positive step even though we had hoped for something stronger and clearer,� Nimr Hamad, a senior advisor to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, told AFP.

Thanks, but no thanks

The Israeli response was less warm.

An official communique from Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel welcomed the fact that �the voices of the responsible and reasonable EU states prevailed� in �improving� the text from the original Swedish proposal.

But it added that: �Israel regrets that the EU has chosen to adopt a text that even if it contains nothing new, does not contribute to the renewal of negotiations.�

The US also indicated that the EU�s attempt to set parameters for peace negotiations is an unwelcome intrusion.

�We are aware of the EU statement, but our position on Jerusalem is clear. And we believe that as a final status issue, it�s - this is best addressed inside a formal negotiation among the parties directly,� state department spokesman Philip J Crowley said.