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28th Jan 2023

EU-Israel meeting ends with no progress on 'upgrade'

  • Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip at the beginning of the year saw the EU put the planned upgrade on ice (Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman ended his first EU visit on Monday (15 June) evening without securing a previously planned "upgrade" in EU-Israel relations.

EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg earlier in the day had said that an offer by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to create a demilitarised Palestinian state was welcome but insufficient to warrant any significant advance in bilateral relations.

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The phrase repeatedly used by EU officials - echoing similar language from Washington - was that Mr Netanyahu's offer, made during a speech on Sunday night, was a "good step," but only a step.

"The EU welcomes the initial step following the Israeli policy review announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu, of a commitment to a peace that will include the creation of a Palestinian state," said Czech foreign minister Jan Kohout, whose country currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency.

"It is very important that we see from the new Israeli government and the prime minister for the first time the mentioning of the two-state solution. This is a very important first step," EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters.

But EU ministers reminded Israel that it must also stop building Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, describing the activity as illegal under international law.

"The Council [of Ministers] is deeply concerned by the recent increase in settlement activities, house demolitions and evictions in the Palestinian territories, especially in East Jerusalem. The EU re-iterates that settlements are illegal under international law and constitute an obstacle to peace," the ministers said in a statement.

"We have insisted on the freezing of settlements. We hope very much this will be a reality," said the EU's chief diplomat, Javier Solana. UK foreign minister David Miliband also said Israel must deliver a "complete freeze" on settlements.

The EU diplomats underlined that Israel's blockade of aid deliveries to Gaza is another pre-condition for peace. According to Oxfam, Israel blocks the entry of all items but emergency food aid, arresting development in the strip.

In March 2009, the government of Israel prevented US-funded food parcels from entering Gaza due to the inclusion of canned tuna, biscuits and jam. They were added to a long list of items "under review," which included wooden toys and maths and science kits.

Some EU ministers on Monday questioned the Israeli prime minister's commitment to a two-state solution.

"The fact that he uttered the word state is a small step forward," said Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, adding: "whether what he mentioned can be defined as a state is a subject of some debate."

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner too was sceptical that Mr Netanyahu's speech was a genuine endorsement of a viable state for the Palestinians. "Without a Palestinian state there is no chance for peace in the region," he said.

Franco Frattini, the former EU commissioner and current foreign minister of Italy - which has been one of Israel's strongest backers in the Council, described the Israeli leader's wording over Jerusalem as "worrying."

Mr Netanyahu had reiterated his government's stance that Jerusalem is the "united capital of Israel," - dashing Palestinian hopes they could one day situate their own capital in occupied East Jerusalem.

"We must say quite clearly today there can only be talk of an upgrade when the peace process is on its way," said Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn, "and for that we need a few steps more."

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