It is time to put peace in the Middle East at the centre of the EU political agenda

Opinion: It is clear, that if left to their own devices, Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of pushing peace forward

‘Today, the Israeli illegal settlement policy in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank clearly undermines the prospects for a two-state solution and questions Israel’s commitment to peace.’ Above, a general view of the East Jerusalem neighborhood called in Hebrew ‘Har Homa’ and Arabic as ‘Jabal abu Ghneim’. Photograph: Abir Sultan

‘Today, the Israeli illegal settlement policy in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank clearly undermines the prospects for a two-state solution and questions Israel’s commitment to peace.’ Above, a general view of the East Jerusalem neighborhood called in Hebrew ‘Har Homa’ and Arabic as ‘Jabal abu Ghneim’. Photograph: Abir Sultan

 

Prospects for peace in the Middle East remain elusive. Both Israelis and Palestinians are still suffering the impact of the summer war in Gaza, the third in just over five years and clearly the worst in terms of the scale of civilian casualties and physical damage. While the Palestinians, once again with support from the international community, are attempting to start the reconstruction of devastated Gaza, we see heightened tensions and violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. At this moment all parties must refrain from actions and statements that would further inflame the situation.

It is clear that, if left to their own devices, Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of pushing peace forward. We greatly appreciate the strong personal engagement of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, during the latest round of talks between the two parties. Even that, however, was not enough to break the deadlock. Wider international involvement is now needed. It is time to engage the rest of the Quartet (made up of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia) and other key partners, including those in the region itself.

The EU must shoulder its responsibility. It is time to bring the Middle East peace process back to the centre of our political agenda again. In this respect, we very much welcome the recent visit by Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, to Israel and the Palestinian territories. It was her first trip outside the EU in this capacity and a clear demonstration of the importance the EU attaches to the Middle East peace process.

A genuine effort to end the conflict would require a clear commitment from Israelis and Palestinians themselves. We need to hear from both parties that they are still committed to working for a solution based on the principle of two states – one Israeli, one Palestinian – living side by side in peace. It is clear that on both sides there are some who refuse to accept this goal. We deplore every statement by Palestinians questioning the right of Israel to exist and every statement by Israelis questioning the aim of creating an independent and viable Palestinian state.

Anniversary of agreement

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area, signed in Cairo by Israel and the Palestinians. It was an important milestone in the Oslo peace process. The treaty provided for limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority was established. However, the limits for progress in this process were reached before the parties were able to tackle the most difficult issues.

One lesson from the Oslo process is that incrementalism does not always work when you try to solve long-standing conflicts. Sometimes it is a diversion.

Another lesson is the absolute need for all sides to accept that the most difficult issues will only be resolved at the negotiating table, not beforehand or through being turned into preconditions.

It is difficult to build trust when realities on the ground change, or are changed. This underlines the need for a determined collective effort to tackle the problem head-on, with clear objectives and parameters and a firm timetable.

These are lessons we have drawn also from the Northern Ireland peace process, in which Finland has long supported the joint efforts of the British and Irish governments and in which inclusive negotiations and open agendas have brought about a new dispensation.

Putting an end to the conflict would bring huge benefits for Israelis and Palestinians and have a transformative effect on the entire region. It would open the way to the normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel, as envisaged in the Arab Peace Initiative. It would remove the excuse many use to stoke other conflicts in the wider Middle East and help bring more stability to a troubled region.

But, at the same time, normalisation of relations would go beyond bilateral and regional dimensions. Peace would make Israelis and Palestinians partners for the whole world in a new way. There would be new possibilities for Israeli-European relations in all sectors. Palestinians would enjoy increasing support and aid while developing their state.

Continuation of the status quo is not an option. Those who seek to undermine the two-state solution must face consequences and costs before we see new eruptions of cyclical violence. Therefore the EU must also consider what more it can do to bring the parties back to the peace process.

Illegal settlement policy

Today, the illegal Israeli settlement policy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank clearly undermines the prospects for a two-state solution and throws into doubt Israel’s commitment to peace. We in the EU are committed to upholding international law.

We have time and time again called on the Israeli authorities to end this settlement policy, which clearly contradicts international law. But commitment is nothing without action. Continuation of this policy must bring a strong response from the international community, including the EU, if our commitment to upholding international law is to be taken seriously.

Also, the Palestinian government must demonstrate that it is a trustworthy and constructive partner.

Reconciliation and national unity is needed to build one Palestinian state. There can be only one legitimate Palestinian government and it must be able to address Israel’s legitimate security concerns as well.

Frustration with the current impasse in the peace process runs deep in Europe. As one expression of this, we see the current debate on recognition of the Palestinian state. We have to regard this option with an open mind if it can be used in support of reaching the goal of an independent Palestinian state through negotiations in accordance with international law. This is our goal, and we stand ready to work with both parties to promote security and peace in the Middle East.

Charlie Flanagan is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade; Erkki Tuomioja is Finland’s minister for foreign affairs.

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