11th Jul 2020

EU plans to hold talks with Hamas cause divisions

EU foreign ministers meeting in Finland agreed that the bloc should take the lead in reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – but member states are divided over plans to hold talks with the Palestinian Hamas movement.

Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja said after informal discussions in the lakeside town of Lappeenranta on Friday (1 September) that ministers had demonstrated "very big unanimity" on the need for the EU to be "engaged" in the Middle East.

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Ministers agreed that after a summer of intense violence in Lebanon, the bloc should take the lead in refocusing attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana declaring before the talks that "I insist that we have to go back to the central theme."

With the EU providing almost half of the troops in the UN's Lebanon force, the time is now ripe for the Europeans to push for a broader peace settlement in the region, diplomats said.

"The Americans are focused on the November elections in Iraq. They are not very engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian issue," said one source.

"There is a general feeling that the EU is now the central player and that there is a new window of opportunity," Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot said, adding that the EU as largest cash provider to the Palestinians should be a "player not only a payer."

Divisions on Hamas

But behind the façade of unity on a more assertive EU role, important divisions exist on what strategy the bloc should follow towards the Islamist Hamas group which been leading the Palestinian government since it won elections earlier this year - but which also figures on the EU's list of terrorist groups.

Just before the talks on Thursday, Mr Tuomioja appeared to propose a major EU policy change towards Hamas by suggesting that the bloc should open contact with the movement, telling German daily Financial Times Deutschland "Hamas is not the same party it was before the elections."

On Friday, however, Mr Tuomioja appeared to backtrack by saying that "we have not changed our policy," adding that the EU would stick to its line that it will only talk with Hamas if it recognises Israel, renounces violence and respects past agreements.

But Mr Bot indicated that the line towards Hamas is under discussion, telling reporters that "I see a shift towards the idea that we should include them [Hamas] in the game."

"But here I am tough. As far as the Netherlands is concerned they should recognise [Israel] first," he added.

EU diplomats said that the possible formation of a Palestinian government of national unity, composed of both Hamas and the moderate Fatah movement of president Mahmud Abbas, could open the door for contacts with Hamas.

"Whenever the government of national unity comes about, we will talk to them," said one contact explaining that such a government would have to be agreed upon by president Abbas - who supports the EU conditions put on Hamas.

Hopes are being put on more moderate forces within Hamas, who in June endorsed a document which supports the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel drawn up together with the rival Fatah faction.

Is the roadmap dead?

Meanwhile, ministers were not sure either how to deal with the 2003 Road Map, a plan agreed by international powers including the EU to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Mr Tuomioja said that "we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We have the Road Map," but Mr Bot said that the plan has meanwhile become "a bit broke."

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that during travels in the Middle East he got the impression that "referring to the roadmap is not very credible," but he added the EU should continue to work with elements of the plan.

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