x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

EU patience wanes over Middle East peace talks

EU issues criticism of Israeli settlement policy in draft statement ahead of today's meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels.

AMSTERDAM // Europe is signalling increasing frustration with the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and, in particular, with the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land.

The EU is set to express its concern over the settlements at a summit today, where tougher measures against Iran's nuclear programme will also be discussed.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, said international mediation between Israel and the Palestinians had failed.

Decrying the "glacial immobility" of the peace process, Mr Sarkozy poured scorn on the Quartet of international mediators - consisting of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia - that has been trying to restart negotiations.

"We must stop hiding reality … the Quartet is a failure," he told French diplomats on Friday.

The remarks came amid confusion over a Quartet deadline for both sides to restart talks and submit proposals on security and borders, including settlements.

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met this month for three rounds of preliminary talks in the Jordanian capital Amman after a hiatus of almost 16 months.

Palestinian officials have insisted the Quartet deadline for progress is January 26. If that is not met, they may abandon the talks and resume their bid for statehood at the UN.

US and EU officials have urged both parties to continue the talks regardless.

Maja Kocijanic, the spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told The National: "I would not look at it like a deadline, that if there is no result by a certain date we will be left with nothing. I think the efforts continue."

Mr Sarkozy's frustration with the Quartet's failure was echoed in Germany.

"We never really quite understood what kind of impact the Quartet could have anyway," said Sylke Tempel of the influential German Council on Foreign Relations.

"How do you find a line between the UN, Europe and Russia? They can't even adopt a common line on Iran."

The loss of faith in the Quartet's formula coincides with a mounting sense of frustration in Europe over continued construction of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

A draft statement circulating for today's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels expresses concern over the issue.

"Against the backdrop of worrying developments on the ground in 2011, particularly with regard to settlements, the EU reaffirms its commitment to a two-state solution," reads the draft statement, which may still be altered.

It comes after two leaked EU reports that were highly critical of Israeli policies in the West Bank.

One of the papers reportedly warns that by building settlements in and around East Jerusalem, Israel is closing the door on the city as a capital for both sides, which is regarded as a precondition for a Palestinian state.

Another report, on the erosion of the civil rights of Israel's Palestinian Arab population, was also revealed recently.

While this is not the first time such reports have been leaked, the EU regards this as particularly serious because it could endanger its continuing efforts in mediation. The leaks paint a picture of an EU that is deeply frustrated with the Israeli government.

Some of that frustration surfaced last week in remarks by the British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg during the visit to London by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Clegg called settlement construction, "an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise upon which negotiations have taken place for years".

Deborah Pout, at the Next Century Foundation in London, which works primarily to support peace initiatives across the Middle East, linked the EU developments to Mr Clegg's remark.

"It comes also as the EU documents were leaked referring to settlements around Jerusalem and it comes within that context of growing impatience and, I think also, frustration with the Israeli government on the part of the European Union," Ms Pout said.

The UK government and the EU have repeatedly voiced criticism of Israel's settlement policy, although Mr Clegg's remarks were the toughest from any serving British minister so far, said Ms Pout.

The question remains whether the EU will follow this up with concrete measures. Not all 27 member states agree with all the aspects of the criticism of Israel, let alone with steps to put pressure on the country.

The issue was likely to remain on the agenda, said Esra Bulut Aymat at the European Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

"It is also a question of legitimacy," Ms Aymat said. "How long can the EU be seen to be supporting, and channelling substantial financial resources into a process that growing numbers are declaring dead or futile?"