The European Union intensified efforts in recent weeks to insert itself more directly in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, outbidding the United States as chief patron of Palestinian claims to statehood. With the May 17th election nearing, Israeli leaders across the board rebuffed the forceful EU diplomacy. But Palestinian positions are sure to harden, as they grudgingly delay statehood while exploiting the latest European initiatives.
Return to Sender: The EU offensive began in mid-March, when a low-level diplomatic exchange erupted into a major confrontation over Jerusalem. While the episode resulted in no gains for any candidate, it did expose the EU's coziness to Palestinian positions, and its allegiance to an antiquated remedy for the Jerusalem question – "corpus separatum."
The row began when the Palestinian Authority invited ambassadors to a briefing at Orient House, its purported foreign ministry building in eastern Jerusalem. Israeli foreign minister Ariel Sharon reacted with a letter to various embassies to deter attendance, stating Israel's position: Jerusalem is the undivided, exclusive capital of Israel and meeting the PA at Orient House violates Oslo.
Intending a low-key response, German Ambassador Theodor Wallau, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, wrote back that the EU deems Jerusalem a "corpus separatum," citing United Nations Resolution 181 of November, 1947 (the Partition Plan).
Reflecting wide consensus on Jerusalem, Israeli politicians and commentators reacted strongly. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak denounced the EU stance. Ma'ariv called the letter a "slap in the face," adding "the Europeans are insolent,… foolish." Ha'aretz contended "there is… reason to regret that Germany, Israel's principal supporter in Europe, formulated this severe diplomatic protest."
Sharon demanded Germany rescind Wallau's missive, and activated Israel's missions abroad for an information campaign on its claim to Jerusalem. For its part, the EU expressed surprise at the publication of its ambassador's letter, but added that it simply reaffirms the EU's traditional stance on Jerusalem. (Recall the EU boycott of Jerusalem 3000 celebrations in 1996.)
Encouraged by European support, the PA's Feisal Husseini eventually hosted a briefing with ten foreign consuls aimed at embarrassing Netanyahu. At the meeting, Husseini warned America not to move its embassy to Jerusalem by May, as mandated by Congress.
In retaliation, Netanyahu revoked special travel privileges for Husseini and two more senior PA officials. He could not afford to waver on an issue he used effectively 3 years ago against Shimon Peres, and rushed to explain a "joking" reference to the "Abu Dis" option proposed in secret Beilin-Abu Mazen talks in 1995, whereby this Jerusalem suburb would serve as the Palestinian seat of government. (A large parliament building is under construction in Abu Dis, a kilometer from the Old City and partly within municipal boundaries. The plan involves an Arab corridor to the Temple Mount, allowing Yasser Arafat to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque without passing through Israeli checkpoints.)
EU special envoy Miguel Moratinos later clarified that Jerusalem is a subject for permanent status talks. The European added that he has never visited Orient House, and does not intend to do so. The US also assured it conducts no official business at Orient House.
The EU reference to UN resolution 181 remains puzzling, however, as the special regime proposed for Jerusalem in 1947 is largely unworkable today. Few Israelis or Palestinians advocate this idea kept on life-support by the Vatican. Its map of Jerusalem included Bethlehem, which the PA is unlikely to relinquish. The UN plan also provided for a referendum in 10 years' time allowing residents to decide the city's fate – a Jewish majority virtually assured inclusion in Israel.
Before the furor subsided, a senior PA official cited the EU letter and promised to challenge Israel's claim to western Jerusalem in final-status talks. And the Palestinian flag was seen flying over Orient House.
The EU Rewards Arafat: A week later, the EU issued its strongest pro-Palestinian statement yet at a summit in Berlin. The 15-member body endorsed "the creation of a democratic, viable and peaceful sovereign Palestinian state" within one year as "the best guarantee of Israel's security" and an option that should not be subject to an Israeli veto.
Israeli leaders blasted the Berlin declaration. PM Netanyahu even invoked the Holocaust, terming it "regretful that Europe, where a third of the Jewish people perished, would see fit to attempt to impose a solution that endangers… Israel." Some faulted the Europeans for assuming that Arafat's state would ever be "democratic, viable or peaceful."
The EU action reportedly was taken in step with Washington, which had just promised the PLO leader to push for an accelerated timetable for final status talks right after the Israeli elections, and to increase The heat on settlement activity. According to Ha'Aretz, the Europeans and Americans made a joint effort to compensate Arafat for delaying statehood without straining relations with Israel - or driving voters into Netanyahu's arms.
Apparently, the EU rejected a sharper French suggestion that recognition be automatic if a new deadline passes. The communiqué drew praise from Palestinian leaders, but could block a greater EU role due to its objectionable predetermination of a major item of contention. Both Netanyahu and Sharon have expressed willingness to accept a Palestinian entity, but insist on Israel's right to negotiate limits on its sovereignty.
An emboldened Arafat threw caution to the wind, urging a Ramallah rally to take up arms if Israel uses force to block a state. "We are ready to fight a new battle of Karameh every single day," Arafat said in reference to a mythical PLO victory in 1968 from which he reportedly escaped dressed as a woman.
Arafat kept up suspense on the May 4 decision by extending his "tour of consultations" to include China, Russia and Germany. Concern has surfaced that Arafat has used these meetings to revive interest in the 1947 UN Partition Plan. Arafat may well be up to new mischief, as evidenced by a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan from PLO Observer Nasser Al-Kidwa.
Following statements by Israeli leaders that Res. 181 became "null and void" when the Arab states rejected it and invaded Israel, Al-Kidwa wrote that these were "pathetic statements involving illegal positions." He said the resolution "has become acceptable" to the Palestinian side, and demanded that Israel "explain… the measures it took illegally to extend its laws and regulations to the territory it occupied in the war of 1948, beyond the territory allocated to the Jewish State in resolution 181 (II)."
Israel's UN Ambassador Dore Gold replied to Annan with a cogent account of the Palestinian and Arab League's violent rejection of the UN's partition plan, and even the UN's own abandonment of its obligations under the resolution, particularly to protect Jews in besieged Jerusalem. ">From the perspective of Israel, resolution 181 (II) had been overtaken by the events of 1947-1949," said Gold, adding that: "In its place, the Security Council adopted resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) which provided a radically different formula for the settlement of the conflict... the only formula that has been accepted by all concerned… The resurrection of resolution 181 (II) by the PLO is a transparent effort to belatedly derive benefit from a resolution which the Palestinian leadership itself violently rejected 50 years ago."
The Palestinian Central Council, a PLO body, will meet April 27 in Gaza City to make a final decision on the timing for declaring a state. Palestinian assembly speaker Ahmed Qorei, publicly warned Arafat about a delay beyond May 4: "The Palestinian leadership would lose credibility both domestically and internationally," he said, while "allowing [Netanyahu] to present himself as a strong prime minister." Out of several possiblities, the latest tip has Arafat declaring a state on June 4, three days after Israel knows its next prime minister.