‘How can an intelligent people only see the short term?'

In candid, highly critical interview, Luxembourg’s FM Jean Asselborn presents window into European Left’s thinking on Israel.

Jean Asselborn 311 (photo credit: Paul O'Driscoll/Bloomberg)
Jean Asselborn 311
(photo credit: Paul O'Driscoll/Bloomberg)
In a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last month, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu channeled Eric Hoffer’s term “true believer” to refer to people who – despite the hurricane sweeping the region – still view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its primary issue.
What the WikiLeaks cables revealed, he said, was that the main concern of people in this region is not the Israeli- Palestinian issue but Iran. And what the wave of protests in the Arab world showed was that the main concern was not the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the policies of their own regimes.
Yet, he added, “there are still those for whom the centrality of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to the region – and in fact to the world – is nothing less than an article of faith. There is no evidence that these true believers will not ignore.”
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who was here last week as part of a regional tour that also took him to Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, is someone Netanyahu would most likely place in the “true believer” category.
Asselborn, who places the onus for the stagnation in the diplomatic process squarely on Israel’s shoulders, who says it should remove “the wall” and let Gazans come to work here, and who advised it not to be a prisoner of its own security concerns, said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that “there are other problems in the world, but this problem here is the most crucial one for me.”
One would be ill advised to dismiss the words of the warm and jovial Asselborn as unimportant because he is the foreign minister of a state with just over half a million people. Rather, his words are illustrative, and echo how significant swaths of Europe – from Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to Swedish foreign Minister Carl Bildt and numerous influential politicians on the continent in between – now view Israel.
The following are excerpts of an interview held Thursday in his hotel room at the David Citadel in Jerusalem.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in his meeting with EU foreign ministers last week, said that the Palestinians are taking a confrontational posture, while Israel is taking confidence building measures toward them. What do you make of that, is there anything to it?
I don’t know any example of a “confrontational posture” taken by the Palestinians. Confrontation means that you block something. The only wish – as I understand – from the Palestinians is to stop settlements, and then they will immediately start negotiations.
Lieberman said that they tried to block Israel’s entry into the OECD, are leading the delegitimization campaign, are involved in incitement, name squares after terrorists. Lieberman says we take confidence building measures, and that’s what they do?
I cannot share this. That is the wrong feeling and mentality. Neither in the EU, nor in Luxembourg, have we ever said that there is a confrontational attitude from the Palestinian side. In my opinion, that is a wrong appreciation.
Is not trying to internationalize the conflict, trying to push through a resolution at the UN Security Council, not a confrontational stance?
If you read the resolution [recently vetoed by the US], there are three elements: the 1967 borders, stopping the settlements and immediately restarting negotiations. That is what in a way President [Barack] Obama [has said], what even already president [George W.] Bush said. It is what we in the European Union have been saying for two and a half years, in all our council conclusions. Is that a provocation? It is a reality, a fact. How else can we have a chance to bring both sides back to the negotiations table?
I just spoke with Tzipi Livni. The difference – and I understood her very well – between the government and the opposition is that the government wants an economic peace. The government wants an economic peace, but we need a political resolution of the conflict first. There is a contradiction between, on one side, those who say “we want economic peace,” and then those who say “we can talk about a political resolution, about peace.”
The current Israeli government says “we want to start immediate negotiations.” But about what? We cannot start negotiations about average income, about economic targets. Negotiations should have three very precise points – as defined in the Annapolis process: two-state-solution, Jerusalem as the capital of two states, borders of 1967.
I hope at the next meeting of the Quartet this will be mentioned, including swaps.
The resolution of the Security Council was vetoed by the Americans, but 14 other countries said “yes, that is what we say every day.” So what is wrong with that?
We seem to be in two different worlds. A lot of people in Europe – and I think also in the US, in Japan and in China – can’t understand why it is not possible that Israel accept a settlement freeze, start negotiations and define where the borders are. Once we define the borders, I think everything is possible.
Let me also address the issue of Jerusalem. You don’t have to cut Jerusalem in two parts. Jerusalem could be the capital of both states. That’s possible, perfectly possible. Finally, the question concerning the refugees is a difficult problem.
There are other problems in the world, but this problem here is the most crucial one for me... If we solve it, we will diminish the influence of Iran, we will take a lot of water from the mills of terrorist organizations and we will bring what we always call dignity to the Arab world.
Do you really think you can solve this problem without first dealing with Iran? Do you think Iran, or Hezbollah or Hamas, are going to sit and watch as the two sides negotiate some kind of peace agreement?
Maybe reverse the order – first deal with Iran, and then it will be easier to bring about peace here.
Concerning Iran, nobody can find a solution at the moment. That is not possible. What is possible is to place pressure on Iran. That is what we are trying to do in the EU.
Secondly, why does Iran have such a big influence? Palestinians are not friends of Iran, not at all. They have problems with the Iranians as you do, at the same level. In the Arab world, I know only a few countries – but not a lot – who agree with the imagination, targets and aims of the Iranians to have an atomic weapon in the region.
What most people want is a denuclearization of the Middle East. Totally!
But do you think it is possible to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict while Iran has an interest in not seeing it solved?
Iran cannot dominate the whole region here, and the whole world.
They can unleash terrorism against Israel to ruin negotiations, which they did in the past.
Terrorism from the Iranian side is possible at any time. It could happen completely regardless of the Israel- Palestine conflict.
With peace between Israel and Palestine, Israel comes out of its isolation.
With an agreement, it means that Israel makes the step to understand the Palestinians and to take a step toward the Arab world.
In the Arab League a lot of states are in favor of a peace agreement and that was never the case before. And you have people like [Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad and Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] in the PA, who are not aggressive people, who are moderate people and who want peace.
They told me this morning – both of them – that they want to have peace with Israel, without any other tricky thing in mind.
But, if you say that Iran will never allow peace negotiations, you put all the destiny of your country and that of the Palestinians in the hands of Iran. I don’t think Iran should be considered such a strong element in this region.
If the Palestinians want peace, like they told you this morning, why won’t they negotiate?
Because they cannot negotiate if they look out of the window and see on their own ground that buildings are growing, settlements are being built on territory that doesn’t belong to Israel.
We all know two things. One, they did negotiate in the past. And two, we know that under Netanyahu the building is less than it has been for years. And still they don’t negotiate. We also know that Netanyahu froze the settlements for 10 months, and they didn’t negotiate. So how do we know they want peace?
Are you sure the settlements didn’t continue, even during the 10 months? The authorized settlements continued, that’s what the Palestinians told me. And now the circles are getting bigger and bigger. They told me this morning that if all the projects are finalized, 40 percent of the territory would be settlements. And contiguity would no more exist.
We are at a point now where the negotiations are pretty much at a halt. In your mind, is it the Israelis or the Palestinians who are responsible?
In my view I think it is the Israeli responsibility, because this government doesn’t continue the same policies of the governments before, [such as] when we were in the Annapolis framework. There, we spoke about reducing checkpoints, maps were elaborated, there was a debate on Jerusalem and we didn’t speak about a Jewish state.
I just give you my feeling. If you speak about a Jewish state, then the impression is that all the Arabs in your country will be pushed into a minority, that they do not belong to this Jewish state and that they will be barely tolerated here. That was not a condition of Annapolis. Therefore, if you put the question to me on who is responsible, the responsibility is on the Israeli side in my view.
I really cannot understand that such an intelligent people like the Israelis – who have suffered so much in history, and who have built this wonderful country – can see only the short-term future. They don’t think too much about what will happen in the midand long-term. You know that in longterm, the demographic situation is not in your favor.
So why don’t you try now to do what the whole world expects – find a negotiated solution? And for a negotiated solution you need two things: a stop to settlements, and above all making clear to the Palestinian side that there is one aim – a two-state solution.
As long as in Israel there is a government that says it wants a two-statesolution, then Israel has to concretize this idea and make it possible. Therefore there is a political responsibility.
However, I don’t say that there is no responsibility on the Palestinian side at all.
So what is the Palestine responsibility?
The Palestinians’ responsibility is clear: Israel needs security, and if Palestinians want dignity, they need to relaunch the inter-Palestinian dialogue and increase it – the Palestinians themselves cannot have two states. This division between the Palestinian people is very deep and difficult to solve, and they have to find a way to overcome this division by setting up one united government. One government – that is the responsibility of the Palestinian side – and thereby accept the conditions of the Quartet [to disavow violence, recognize Israel and recognize previous agreements].
And if they don’t accept the conditions?
If it’s not possible, then that is a real problem, and the Palestinian side knows it. But I say again, the status quo cannot be the solution.
Has the change in the region changed anything?
Yes. In Europe, we made a big mistake. We made peace with these regimes. We saw the regimes, but did not consider enough the people in those countries. In 2005, Luxembourg held the rotating presidency of the EU. I made a trip to Israel and the PA – the last station was Cairo. At the time, [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak was the man who helped bring both sides together – inter-Palestinian dialogue, as well as the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians. The conditions in which, for instance, Egyptian people had to live, was secondary. Our target was that Mubarak could help us.
Netanyahu said that everything happening in the Arab world just shows how important it is for Israel to have ironclad security arrangements on the ground, and if I understand him correctly, he is saying that – since we don’t know what will happen with Jordan – we will need an Israeli presence on the Jordan River in any agreement with the Palestinians. Do you see legitimacy in that argument?
It is difficult... Palestine needs territory and structures to be able to function, and not to be strangled.
But how can Israel have confidence that what happened in Gaza when it left Gaza, or Lebanon when it left Lebanon, won’t happen again if it leaves the West Bank?
One and a half million people are living in Gaza on a territory seven times smaller than Luxembourg. These people live under very difficult conditions.
Israel left Gaza yes, but Israel also closed Gaza.
But there was a choice they could make there. They could make it a terror base against Israel, or take what they have, and make the best of it. Why should Israel think that things will turn out differently elsewhere?
Because as long as Gaza remains under its current form, Israel will never be secure. It is clear for me. If Gaza is opened, as it was in the ’80s and ’90s, people from Gaza could work in Israel, and people from Israel could work in Gaza. This would lower the tension significantly.
Right, but that stopped when we were getting blown up every other week on the buses.
Yes, but that’s finished.
Is it?
We just saw a Grad missile in Beersheba.
In London you have [terrorism] also, and in Paris.
Yes, but a little different in terms of numbers.
If you decide here in Israel that the status quo is based on security, and everything has to be behind a wall, in my opinion, it is not a solution.
I remember when Tzipi Livni was in charge, she came to Brussels to talk to us. The purpose was 200, 300, 400 trucks a day [crossing between Israel and Gaza]. After the war the reconstruction efforts in Gaza progressed very slowly. And all the young people developed hatred against Israel. They hate Israel, because they are locked up in an open-air prison.
This morning I was in Ramallah in a refugee camp. I met young people there.They live in very difficult conditions, not in tents, but very close. Fifteen thousand people in a very small area. They go to school, and then they see this wall. Sometimes in the morning, they told me, they have to wait three hours to come to school.
So, please, accept that my feeling from the outside is that if the focus is solely concentrated on security, the situation can never be resolved.
But what about the parents here who have a responsibility to look after the lives of their children? What else are they to do?
You have a responsibility to look after the lives of your children, and I think a father in the camp in Ramallah also has a responsibility. But he sees his children as if they were living in a prison there.
You think we should just open up the “wall,” let everyone come through and just let what happens, happen?
No, I think only one thing. Let’s find an agreement with the Palestinians so they are able to create a state. Let’s give a possibility to bring people from Gaza and the West Bank together, so that there can be communication.
Luxembourg is considered among the least friendly countries to Israel in the EU. Is that fair?
If I say we need a solution on borders, Jerusalem and settlements, I just repeat the principles of what President Obama and everyone else says. I am not an enemy of Israel. Really, I am not. I am a critical friend, but my criticism comes from my heart. What I criticize the most in Israel is that the current government, in my opinion, doesn’t care about the mid term and the long term, just the short term. And that is the problem. Indeed, sometimes I say what I think, but I would never, deep down in my heart, say something against the Israeli people or Israel. But I criticize the government, as I criticize the government of [Italian Premier Silvio] Berlusconi, Bush or others, but never a statement against Israel or the Israeli people.
Politically, I am from the Left in the European Union. It is an expression of my feeling. I know also friends in Israel who expect that we criticize. I spoke now with Tzipi Livni. She is domestic opposition. That is different from my opposition. I can only criticize evolutions or decisions that I don’t think are on a good track. I do it, and I will continue to do it. If this is considered by the Foreign Ministry or someone else in Israel as an unfriendly position, I don’t think it corresponds to the reality.
You say you are a critical friend. The criticism we hear, but where do we see the friendship?
You will see the friendship tomorrow, if tomorrow Israel stops settlements independently, sits at the table with the Palestinians and tries to find a positive result with the Palestinians.
You are going to Gaza, will you meet with Hamas?
Do you think the EU should change its policy against talking with Hamas?
For me, it is not easy to know what they represent. I know Hamas from my friends in the PA. It is not in the interest of the Palestinian people that there is a faction there that divides the people. I know there was an elected president, he’s still there. We had elections, and people from Hamas were elected. I think that if really the plan of Fayyad [for a political reconciliation with Hamas] could come to a positive result, if there could really be a newly elected government, we will have to accept it. If we want democracy – if this is a request – then we also have to accept the results.