EU weighs new methods to coax Israel back to peace talks

AP News
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Posted: Mar 27, 2015 12:13 PM
EU weighs new methods to coax Israel back to peace talks

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is assessing new ways to push Israel back to the peace negotiating table with the Palestinians for a deal based on a two-state solution, working in tandem with the United States, EU officials say.

The EU is exploring new diplomatic terrain and could consider ways to discourage Europeans from buying products from Israeli settlements it believes are illegal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election rhetoric has fueled doubts about Israel's commitment to a two-state solution — a cornerstone of EU and U.S. policies for ending the Middle East conflict.

"We will not forget or ignore what was being said during the campaign and in particular some of the incendiary statements by Prime Minister Netanyahu," German EU lawmaker Reinhard Buetikofer told The Associated Press.

The Europeans are aware that the rhetoric could remain at fever pitch for the next month as the Israeli leader negotiates a new coalition government and they are reluctant to move too far too fast.

"We first have to wait for the policy that new Israeli government is going to set out," Buetikofer said.

Middle East peace moves have been frozen since the last round of U.S.-brokered talks collapsed last April. Since then, Israel fought a 50-day war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and advanced plans to build hundreds of new homes in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have sought unilaterally to have their long-hoped for state recognized by nations or institutions like the International Criminal Court.

To try to end the stalemate, the EU and the U.S want to breathe new life into the diplomatic Quartet — the U.S., EU, United Nations and Russia — and the Europeans have just named a new envoy to the region.

"The main focus we have is the re-launch of the peace process," the EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini said earlier this month.

The EU is the biggest aid provider to the Palestinians but has traditionally followed the U.S. lead on diplomacy with Israel.

Yet EU-Israeli ties run deep, both culturally and commercially.

The 28-nation EU is Israel's biggest trading partner, and Israel has access to Europe's massive research and development fund Horizon 2020, as well as agreements on agricultural, industrial and pharmaceutical products

Since 2000, relations have been enshrined in an Association Agreement, widely considered among the most favorable the EU has drawn up with any partner country.

But when it comes to Middle East diplomacy, the 28 EU nations are divided. Sweden, for example, has recognized a Palestinian state, while Britain and Germany are staunch Israeli allies.

Among measures that could be considered if things don't improve are consumer information campaigns about the origin of settlement produce or warnings to companies about the risks of doing business there, according to an EU document leaked in Israeli media, and confirmed by an EU official.

Another could be to send European observers to watch over Palestinian house demolitions or evictions and even monitor court cases.

As a new coalition is being formed, an EU report released this week underlines that the old problems persist — settlement expansion, the destruction of homes and restrictions on peoples' movements — and that they "threaten to make the two-state solution impossible."

"EU diplomacy will likely remain in a sort of listening mode for a while, looking at what might be Netanyahu's political and diplomatic signaling strategy, and it will also probably adjust its actions accordingly," said Andrea Frontini, analyst at European Policy Centre think-tank.