Israel Warned by Europe Over Land Annexation Plan
Germany’s foreign minister urged Israel on Wednesday to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians rather than unilaterally annex West Bank land, as European officials step up their opposition to a proposed move they see ending Palestinian hopes for an independent state.
With Israel vowing to begin the annexing process next month, Heiko Maas set aside concerns that prohibited travel since the coronavirus pandemic broke out to meet with his newly installed Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi. He’ll hold virtual talks with Palestinian officials.
“Annexation would not be compatible with international law. Therefore we continue to support a negotiated, consensual solution,” Maas said at a press conference in Jerusalem. “We will need new creative impulses for the restart of talks.”
Ashkenazi, a former military chief, has said the government intends to advance President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which endorses Israel extending its sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank, in “a responsible manner” that fits with the country’s strategic interests. But the plan to formally carve off territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Mideast war, an idea long just a pipe-dream for the Israeli right, is an outrage for the Palestinians, who rejected the Trump plan outright and pared back security and economic cooperation with Israel.
The EU has said it would discourage annexation, though sanctions on Israel are unlikely in the short term as that would require unanimity among member states and, according to Brussels-based officials, at least Hungary would veto such a step. Maas said he “didn’t come here with a price tag,” in response to a question about measures Germany would take against Israeli annexation. Germany takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1.
But as well as the political fallout, continued economic access to the EU, Israel’s largest trading partner, could suffer as a result.
The EU would have a lower threshold to exclude Israel from the research and development funding program called Horizon 2020, whose terms will be renewed at the end of the year, European officials say. Israel has received over 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in grants since joining the program in 2013. The EU could also withdraw Israel’s duty-free access to the European market without requiring the unanimous support of the bloc’s national governments.
Tony Blair, the former U.K. prime minister and ex-head of the Quartet group that tried unsuccessfully to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, said pursuing the annexation plan “will create a significant source of tension between the European Union and the State of Israel, even amongst those states that are traditionally very supportive of Israel.”
Conceding Israeli annexation would weaken the EU’s claim to champion international law by rejecting, for example, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, analysts say.
Other European foreign ministers are considering a trip to Jerusalem to discuss Israel’s annexation plans, though the timing remains uncertain because of the coronavirus, according to an Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous because the deliberations are private. The official didn’t specify the countries eyeing a visit.
Israel and the Palestinians negotiated for more than 20 years before the last round of talks collapsed in 2014, and had identified core issues including the future borders of Israel and a Palestinian state, the status of contested Jerusalem and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.
While expanding his country’s borders would cement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s place in history for the country’s nationalist right, it’s unclear what cost he’s willing to bear. A number of Arab states have also signaled that the gains in bilateral ties of recent years could be undone.
“The peace process has reached a serious impasse,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Tuesday. If Israel pushed ahead with annexation, the Palestinians would declare an independent state over all territory within the 1967 borders and ask the international community to recognize it, he said.