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Middle East role

Mel Frykberg, RamallahMay 21, 2015

Can the EU resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini faces a daunting task after talks with both sides. Mel Frykberg reports from Ramallah.

Image: Reuters/Dan Balilty

In an effort to sound conciliatory Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Federica Mogherini on Wednesday during their meeting in Jerusalem that he supported a two-state solution, contradicting earlier comments that he was against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

However, facts on the ground - including the new government which comprises members who oppose a Palestinian state and make no commitment to the two-state solution, and comments from Israel's foreign ministry - reflect a different reality, one of an Israeli government on the defensive.

"The Israeli government will not be pressured by the EU into making any concessions with the Palestinians in regards to the peace process," says a spokesman from Israel's foreign ministry - who insists on remaining anonymous due to "ongoing problems at the ministry."

"If the EU exerts one-sided pressure on Israel, without putting any pressure on the Palestinians, the situation will backfire because it will allow the Palestinians to avoid direct negotiations with us at the negotiating table," he told DW.

"Any future peace negotiations will have to involve face-to-face talks between the Palestinians and us. We will accept nothing less."

Palestinian pressure

However, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas told Mogherini during a meeting in Ramallah that although he was committed to the peace process there would be no talks until Israel freezes settlement construction, releases Palestinian political prisoners and agrees to a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

two people standing next to each other Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Mogherini is trying to bridge the gap between both sidesImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Momani

The Israeli foreign ministry's statements followed comments made by Mogherini at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on the Middle East. "One thing is clear to everyone in the region. The status quo is not an option. The EU wants a more active role in seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians."

However, the EU faces enormous obstacles. For one thing, Israel's new Interior Minister Silvan Shalom has been appointed Israel's negotiator in any future peace talks. Shalom is a strong advocate of Israeli settlements and an equally strong opponent of the two-state solution.

And Israel seemingly has no intention of freezing its settlement policy in the West Bank. Addressing the Knesset on Jerusalem Day, Netanyahu said Israel also had the right to build anywhere in Jerusalem, Israel's "united capital."

Citing religion, and 3,000 years of history, he explained that he had authorized the relevant authorities to build everywhere in Jerusalem, including neighborhoods over the Green Line.

EU leverage?

Political scientist Samir Awad from Birzeit University believes the EU will be able to successfully pressure the Israeli government, despite its extremism.

"The EU is Israel's biggest trading partner and the threat of economic sanctions on Israel is a language the Israeli government understands far more than empty threats from the Americans who never followed any criticism of the Israeli government with any action," Awad told DW.

"EU pressure on Israel will also be buoyed by the fact that a number of EU countries have officially recognised a Palestinian state while others have recognized a state in principle and are critical of Israel's continued occupation and land expropriation in the West Bank," he added.

man on building site
Israel says it will continue and expand its settlement policy in JerusalemImage: picture alliance/dpa

However, political analyst Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, is not convinced that the EU will succeed in pushing Israel to any negotiating table.

"The EU is seeking a more active role in the peace process but I think the pressure will be more political than economic and that will wait until after a deal is reached with Iran," Berti told DW. "If we look at their record so far there has been a lot of rhetoric but not much actual action. So far 16 out of the 28 EU ministers have told Mogherini to go ahead with labeling settlement goods exported to Europe. It hasn't happened yet as they have to get 20 of the 28 EU ministers on board for that and due to the divisions in the EU over Israel I'm not sure that it will happen in the near future."

And she's not optimistic about the EU being able to fill the void left by the US. "Even if they are successful in implementing this basic step I doubt the EU will have any more success in pushing Israel toward the peace process than the Americans prior to them."

Paper tiger

Nour Odeh, a political analyst from the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) media department, also believes that the EU is a paper tiger when it comes to exerting pressure on Israel.

"Unfortunately the EU has not decided to use its full potential in regard to pushing for a feasible solution. Only when the Israeli government is made to understand that its policies will have consequences will it change political direction," Odeh told DW.

"At this point in time it is easier and more comfortable for the EU to cave in to American pressure and put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the back burner until an Iran nuclear programme deal is concluded."

However, despite the cynicism change could be on the way.

France has drafted a UN Security Council resolution calling for the immediate resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and their conclusion in a permanent agreement within 18 months. If no agreement is reached in the allotted time, France will recognize a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Norway's Foreign Minister Borge Brende has warned Israel that pressure will resume on the country once the Iran deal is done while the Americans have stated that unless the Jewish state commits to the two-state solution even they will struggle to defend Israel politically.