Analysis: Israel dodges EU bullet

Analysis Israel dodges

Israel's official response to the final EU text on the Middle East that emerged from Brussels on Tuesday was muted, an obvious attempt not to gloat. Behind closed doors, however, there was satisfaction that the final statement was quite different from the original Swedish draft, and one that reflected a number of Israeli concerns. A number of Israel's concerns, but not all. Israel had numerous problems with the original draft, the biggest one being its call to recognize east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. This was, from Israel's perspective, problematic on two counts: it pre-judges the negotiations, and it also did not include any parity - that west Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. Israel was also incensed that the statement, for the first time, referred to the Palestinian Authority as "Palestine," and that it did not give Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu even the slightest pat on the back for his declaration of a moratorium on housing starts in the settlements. Those issues were dealt with satisfactorily in the final statement. The final statement opened with a European Union call "for the urgent resumption of negotiations that will lead, within an agreed time-frame, to a two-state solution, with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace and security." The Swedish statement made the same call, but also spelled out that the parameters of that Palestinian state, saying it should "comprise the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital." If that's the case, Israeli diplomatic officials asked, what is left to negotiate? The final text was much more traditional, saying that "if there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states." That is something that has been said a million times, and really breaks no new ground. Regarding the reference to "Palestine," the original draft read, "The EU stands ready to further develop its bilateral relations with Palestine as far as formally possible, reflecting shared interests, including in the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy." The final draft replaces "Palestine" with "the Palestinian Authority," something of no little significance in Israeli eyes. And regarding the moratorium, what the Swedes proposed was a paragraph that would read only that "The Council takes note of the recent decision of the government of Israel on a partial and temporary settlement freeze and expressed the hope that it will become a step towards resuming meaningful negotiations." This was replace by a clause which has a much more positive ring to it: "Encouraging further concrete confidence-building measures, the Council takes positive note of the recent decision of the Government of Israel on a partial and temporary settlement freeze as a first step in the right direction and hopes that it will contribute towards a resumption of meaningful negotiations." In addition, the new statement includes a clause absent in the original, and which Israel fought hard to get inserted: "The EU reiterates its commitment towards the security of Israel and its full integration into the region, which is best guaranteed through peace between Israel and its neighbors. The final draft also gives Israel credit for helping to improve the economic situation in the West Bank, something absent in the original. That's the good news. The bad news is threefold: First of all, the statement made no mention of Israel's demand that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized; it also made no reference to Israel as a Jewish state, diplomatic code used by the US to foreclose the option of Palestinian refugees coming to live in Israel, rather than a future Palestinian state; and - most importantly -the text did not call upon the Palestinians to return to the negotiations. The bottom line, however, is that Israel very much dodged a bullet. Had the Swedish resolution been adopted, the language would have likely seeped into debates at the United Nations Security Council, making Israel's diplomatic situation more difficult than it already is. The whole exercise, as one ranking Foreign Ministry official said, has left a bad taste in Israel's mouth. But there are also lessons, one of the foremost being that in the absence of Israeli initiatives or any real movement, other actors will put forward their own initiatives which may be deleterious to Israeli interests. This was one of the key rationales former prime minister Ariel Sharon gave for coming up with the disengagement plan in 2003, saying that if there was an Israeli plan on the table, there would be no vacuum. One may legitimately argue with the wisdom of that particular plan, but the principle is correct, and what was true in 2003 is true in 2009: if there is a diplomatic vacuum, other actors will be only too happy to put forward plans that do not take into account cardinal Israeli interests.