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29th Mar 2020

EU keeps quiet on Israeli settlements

  • Ashton said a few words to press, but there was no formal written statement (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU countries have declined to criticise Israel's surge in settlement building amid US efforts to resume peace talks.

The bloc's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, told press after meeting with foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday (23 June): "We … reaffirmed our commitment to the two state solution and our full support for the current efforts of the US in support of the resumption of direct and substantial negotiations."

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Referring to an EU statement on settlements in May 2012, she added: "We've set out very clearly our position and we stand by that."

EU ministers last year published a written complaint detailing how Israeli building on occupied land is undermining the prospect of a future Palestinian state.

Since then, Israel has approved more than 6,600 new housing units for Jewish settlers and demolished 535 Palestinian structures.

One of the new projects, in the "E1" area of East Jerusalem, will cut the West Bank in two when it is built.

A group of countries - including Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain and the UK - wanted the EU to restate the 2012 complaint in light of events.

But another group - including the Czech republic, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Sweden - wanted to say only that the EU supports US secretary of state John Kerry's new effort to get Israel and Palestine to resume talks.

Ashton herself leaned toward the latter option after Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu told her last week that if the EU criticises Israel, the Palestinians will be less keen to negotiate.

In the end there was no written statement at all because the two groups could not agree.

A German diplomat told EUobserver: "We did not want to have a complete and comprehensive set of new conclusions, but we thought it would be good to have conclusions on some specific matters which could be discussed now, for example, the Kerry initiative."

A diplomat from another country in the German group noted the EU should play a "complementary role" to the US.

He added: "The Kerry initiative is the only game in town. Anything we do or don't do has to be in function of this."

The anti-settlement group said that unless the EU repeats itself, its old statements "lose value."

A contact from one of the large EU countries in the group noted that Monday's outcome was "a mixture of two things: There was pressure [on EU capitals] from the US and there was pressure on Ashton from Israel."

He added: "At the end of the day, it's better to have no conclusions at all than to have inconsequential ones."

Monday's meeting also looked at how the EU can help Russia and the US to launch peace talks between rebels and the regime in Syria.

Last week, French President Francois Hollande caused a stir at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland by saying that Iran, the main sponsor of the Syrian regime, should be invited.

But with no joint EU position on the issue, Ashton on Monday said she is happy to follow the advice of the UN envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, on whether Iran should come.

A senior EU diplomat told this website that Hollande would not have invited Tehran unless he first cleared it with US leader Barack Obama.

He said the "good news" is that the US is becoming more pragmatic on Syria, but the "bad news" is that Moscow and Washington are doing Middle East policy over the head of the EU.

He noted the "Geneva II" peace talks are unlikely to happen before November or December.

"My God. We'll have 150,000 dead by then," he added, referring to the ever-mounting death toll.

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