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(photo credit: AP [File])
Israel would do well to signal a willingness to resume negotiations with the Syrians over the Golan Heights where they broke off in 2000 as a way to get Damascus on board to help implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701, Finnish Ambassador Kari Veijalainen told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday.
Veijalainen, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, also said the deployment in Lebanon of the UNIFIL force manned heavily by European troops would give Europe added weight in the region.
This leverage, he said, would likely be more "psychological" than anything else, but with the European troops in Lebanon, "I would expect that the parties will listen more carefully to what the Europeans have to say." One issue where the Europeans are likely to be more vocal in coming weeks is the situation in the Palestinian territories, particularly the Gaza Strip.
Veijalainen said the Palestinian issue is likely to be one of the subjects of discussion at an informal meeting of European foreign ministers in Finland over the weekend. This comes after some six weeks during which the international community's attention in this region was focused primarily on Lebanon.
He said the foreign ministers realize that "something needs to be done urgently" about the situation in Gaza, adding that three major issues needed to be addressed: the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and opening the border crossings, primarily at Karni and Rafah.
He also said Europe was not "softening" its position regarding the three conditions that Hamas needed to meet before being granted international legitimacy: forswearing violence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous agreements. However, he did say there might be "different interpretations of when each of these conditions would be met."
Veijalainen said he personally did not feel that "the isolation of one party solves the problems, and this is also true with regard to Syria and Iran... such policies are rather the last resort when no workable solutions are found."
The Finnish ambassador said that while there is no formal channel of communications between the Europeans and Hamas, there might be informal channels, although he could not confirm their existence.
One such channel could be through NGOs communicating with Hamas, and then relaying that communication back to their own government. "A lack of communication with any party to the conflict is a dangerous situation which might lead to harmful standstill and misunderstandings," he said.
Asked what he would like to see Israel do now on the Palestinian track, Veijalainen ticked off a number of steps that he said would improve the atmosphere:
Carry out a prisoner release, which was planned before the kidnapping of Shalit
Improve mobility and movement for the Palestinians
Halt settlement construction
Continue high-level Palestinian Authority-Israeli meetings, including a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Asked whether he thought the road map was still relevant, Veijalainen replied that there was "nothing better," but that it was "outdated."
"We are stuck in the first phase, and there is a need to think about how to make it operative again," he said.
Regarding Olmert's realignment plan, Veijalainen said that while the Europeans obviously support any withdrawal from the settlements, the situation in both Gaza and Lebanon - from which Israel withdrew without diplomatic agreements - showed that only a diplomatic agreement could ensure success after withdrawal.
As for Syria, Veijalainen said one of the ways of implementing the arms embargo on Hizbullah - one of Israel's key demands - was to deploy the Lebanese army at the border, something he said has already begun. He said UNIFIL could assist if needed, and that this could take the form of providing training assistance.
He said it was also important to get a Syrian commitment for overall implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701. That would also imply that the Syrians should effectively control their own border, he added.
According to Veijalainen, signaling a willingness to negotiate with Syria could possibly provide it with positive motivation. Syria, in turn, he said, could be asked to facilitate matters in the North, including disarming Hizbullah and refraining from supplying it with new arms.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz, during strategic defense assessments he held in his office with senior security officials on Tuesday, said Israel was prepared for every scenario with Syria. He said it was not yet time for negotiations, though he said he was "leaving that door open."
Damascus has said it opposes the deployment of international troops on its border with Lebanon, and Israel has said that it will not lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon until the international force and the Lebanese forces are deployed in southern Lebanon.
Veijalainen said the first contingent of the Italian contribution to the UNIFIL force, some 1,000 troops, was expected to arrive in Lebanon on Friday, and that the entire European contingent of the force would be on the ground within three months.
He said the Europeans have stressed to Israel the importance of the force being a truly international one, with troops from Muslim countries involved, even if those countries do not have formal ties with Israel.
Olmert has said that Israel would object to the stationing of troops in Lebanon from countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel. This would rule out Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, which have all indicated an interest in sending forces.
The Finnish ambassador pointed out that there have been political contacts, for example, between Israel and Indonesia. He said that the desire for the force to be 15,000 men means that more than just European countries needed to be involved. He said that had the number been lower, it might have been logistically possible to have just a European force.
According to Veijalainen, formal diplomatic ties should not be a requisite requirement for involvement, since there need not be any formal contact between Israel and the troops, which are stationed on Lebanese territory and under a UNIFIL command.
Veijalainen said he was skeptical that an international force of the type that is being deployed to Lebanon could be effective in Gaza, as some - including the Italian foreign minister - have recently indicated.
"Gaza is very crowded," he said. "Peacekeeping can be carried out if there is a neutral zone which could separate the two sides. However, third party monitoring would be important to ensure timely implementation of any agreements - an element that has been missing in practically all agreements so far."
Asked whom he thought had won the recent war in Lebanon, Veijalainen replied: "In this kind of war there are only losers." At the same time, he said it seemed that Hizbullah won a morale victory, and that "it appears they won more hearts and minds than they lost in Lebanon and the Arab world in general."