/ 11 December 2009

Holy city, unholy mess

European Union foreign ministers agreed this week on a watered-down statement on the Middle East so that it now stops short of an explicit call for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state but still contains strong criticism of Israel.

Israel had condemned a leaked draft statement by Sweden, holder of the rotating EU presidency, mentioning East Jerusalem as a future capital for the Palestinians.

EU foreign ministers reverted to more familiar wording that said: “If there is to be genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as a future capital of two states.”

Sweden had wanted the EU to provide sufficient support for the Palestinians to encourage them to return to long-stalled negotiations with Israel, but this latest statement from Brussels seemed unlikely to achieve that. The Palestinians said they will not resume talks unless Israel halts all settlement construction in line with the 2003 United States road map. Israel has agreed only to a temporary and partial settlement freeze.

EU diplomats said they regretted that the leak had exposed internal debates, but the point was to set out parameters for a final agreement at a time of impasse in the peace process, questions about the role and influence of the US and concerns about unilateral Israeli moves in East Jerusalem. “When you start looking at the endgame there will always be something for everyone to dislike,” said one official.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and then annexed it ­— a move the international community never recognised. Underlining that lack of recognition, the EU said it would accept no change to the prewar borders without Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

That position is a challenge to Israel. Nearly 500 000 of its citizens live in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, even though settlements on occupied land are banned by international law. Israel fully expects to hold on to its East Jerusalem settlements and the larger West Bank settlement blocs in any future peace deal.

The EU ministers took “positive note” of Israel’s temporary, partial settlement freeze. But they criticised all settlements, the Israeli separation barrier and the demolition of Palestinian homes, saying they were “illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible”.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the fact that the “extreme draft” statement had been changed but said the EU had failed to contribute to the renewal of peace negotiations. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, however, described the statement from Brussels as a “victory for international legitimacy”.

Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, told reporters: “I don’t really understand why Israel does not accept that Palestine consists of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

“The Israelis have a right to live in Israel; the Palestinians have a right to live in Palestine.” —