Annexation delay can become an opportunity

Annexation delay can become an opportunity

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Israeli Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in Jerusalem, May 13, 2020. (Reuters)

It has been a busy couple of weeks of diplomatic activity in relation to the next moves on the eternal chessboard that is the Middle East peace process.

As Israel formed its new government through an agreement that confirmed progress would be made on implementing the Trump plan’s proposals, including annexation of territory, opinion elsewhere hardened against any such unilateral action. In a virtual meeting with EU foreign ministers, new EU High Representative Josep Borrell was uncompromising that the bloc “must work to discourage any possible initiative towards annexation,” and that “international law has to be upheld,” although it remains unclear what action the EU would take should annexation go ahead.

Within the region, two significant voices were heard. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan pulled no punches in saying that such a move “is illegal, undermines opportunities for peace, and contradicts all efforts made by the international community to reach a lasting political solution in accordance with relevant international resolutions.” Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of “massive conflict” if Israel proceeded unilaterally. He added that annexation would undermine the peace agreement between the two countries, which has been such a vital foundation in recent years.

Those moving the Trump proposals in Israel — and we should not dismiss the strong Israeli voices against them — will probably be unfazed by comments in the EU. Europeans still struggle to be unified in relation to Israel and the peace process when they move away from easy generalities into tough policy decisions; and I would imagine that any number of statements “condemning” actions are factored in at an early stage. But more thoughtful commentators will have taken particular note of the point on international law, which is a live issue in a Europe with Russia on the border. The EU, a major trade and social partner with Israel, and often a champion of it, may have a breaking point. However, the significant regional voices are a different matter and are dismissed at peril.

Amid all this, US Secretary of State Pompeo last week paid a surprise visit to Jerusalem. My take on what emerged from the fog of diplomacy is that a note of caution has been injected into what had seemed inexorable activity. Pompeo ensured we knew that any progress would be a “decision for the Israeli government,” and an anonymous US source suggested that July 1 was “not a sacred date.” The comments of the new Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, an ally of Benny Gantz, on taking office this week were more notable for what he said about “maintaining the peace agreements and strategic interests of the state of Israel” than its endorsement of the Trump plan as a “historic opportunity.” It seems likely that King Abdullah’s words had hit home.

And here we have the rub, and indeed the opportunity. Do these US and Israeli nuances mean we have moved into yet another phase of this interminable issue?

There is so much to risk losing now: Not only the peace bought so dearly through agreements with Jordan and Egypt, and, as is already under acute threat, the Palestinian Authority working with Israel on security, but also the efforts made, quietly or publicly, by Arab states and Israel to improve their relationships for the benefit of the region. The coronavirus pandemic has emphasized that, for most everyday people in the region, what matters is health, family and jobs. That translates, in political terms, to peace and economic progress. There is so much to gain in those terms from an awareness that the region will need to take more of its security on to its own shoulders economically, diplomatically and physically.

A note of caution has been injected into what had seemed inexorable activity.

Alistair Burt

As denying Israel’s existence now belongs to the absurd, justly resolving the issue between it and the Palestinians is key, as a region with such an outstanding issue at its core cannot function to its full capacity. If the Trump plan is an unlikely gauntlet, what is the concerted Arab response to its being thrown down? The first response was to say “no” for all the reasons we understand, which was rightly a determined effort to prevent the unilateral action that so many, including good, long-standing friends of Israel, believe would be damaging almost beyond repair. However, a further response of, “What are we going to propose instead?” is definitely lacking. A response need not concede anything in relation to the plan itself. The sense of outrage at a “negotiation” ending in a one-sided affirmation is justified but, for the sake of people weary of all their leaders and wanting, perhaps more than ever, a chance of a different future for their families, we now need to hear something more.

Perhaps, therefore, this moment of hesitation provides — once again for the eternal optimists in this process — an opportunity. We should be encouraging Arab leaders to seize it.

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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