EU Backs Obama's Mideast Offensive 'Netanyahu's Rejection Is Self-Important and Arrogant'

The European Union is backing US President Obama's call for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn says in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. He also argues that, if the Israelis remain stubborn, the EU must consider taking political action.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and US President Barack Obama at the White House. "We Europeans need to send a message," argues Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and US President Barack Obama at the White House. "We Europeans need to send a message," argues Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected plans by US President Barack Obama for a Palestinian state based on the borders as they existed before the Six Day War in 1967. Is the Mideast peace process now dead?

Asselborn: Netanyahu's rejection of peace based on the 1967 borders is self-important and arrogant -- especially given that Obama explicitly stated that a variation from the 1967 borders would be possible under a mutual land swap. Netanyahu is suppressing the political reality and betting on a stalemate instead. For the peace process, that is deadly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The European Union constantly reiterates that Israel has a guaranteed right to exist. So shouldn't Europeans take more seriously Netanyahu's concern that Israel wouldn't be able to defend itself inside the 1967 borders?

Asselborn: As one of my counterparts correctly stated, the sole security guaranty for Israel is a peace treaty with the Palestinians and the Arab world. No government in the EU questions Israel's right to exist. Nor does Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or his prime minister, Salam Fayyad. The only people who refuse to recognize Israel are the extremists of Hamas.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It is precisely with this Hamas that Abbas and Fayyad recently signed a reconciliation treaty. Can you not understand why this has made the Israelis even more concerned?

Asselborn: Abbas' Fatah party and Prime Minister Fayyad want to hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the moment, though, this is being blocked by Hamas, which came to power in Gaza by force. In order to overcome this division, Fatah and Hamas have signed a treaty. It frees the way for a transition government that includes all Palestinian groups.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Netanyahu has said that Abbas must choose between a peace with Hamas and a peace with Israel.

Asselborn: This is not about an either-or choice. The plan is that the transitional government should sit down with the Israelis as soon as possible to negotiate a two-state solution. In this way, Fayyad wants to prevent a vote at the United Nations General Assembly in September on the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. If Abbas negotiates with Israel and Hamas is part of this transitional government, then Israel will implicitly recognize it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should the European Union hold talks with Hamas?

Asselborn: Four years ago, when the first attempts at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas took place, I harbored reservations myself. Today, I ask myself if it was a mistake not to have provided stronger support for reconciliation at the time. I can understand that it requires a lot of strength to sit down at the table with people who only promote violence. But time hasn't stood still. We need to make an attempt to draw Hamas into a democratic process and bring it on to the path of freedom -- just as we succeeded in doing with Fatah during the 1990s. That would also include informal talks with Hamas.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israel is not alone in demanding that Hamas forswear the use of violence. The Middle East Quartet, of which the EU is a member, is also calling for that.

Asselborn: And that's a position we Europeans are going to maintain. Still, you can't just put conditions on the Palestinian side, as they're not the only source of the violence. Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into a prison. There, 1.7 million people live in an area one-seventh the size of Luxembourg. To shut its borders and to only allow certain goods into the country and hardly any out -- this is also a form of violence. In the West Bank, Israelis continue to build settlements on expropriated land. It is a constant provocation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How can the EU apply additional pressure on Israel?

Asselborn: The first thing the EU needs to do is be more courageous and united in its support of Obama. Large parts of the Republican Party -- and particularly the Tea Party movement within it -- are opposed to a two-state solution. That (sentiment) can't be allowed to cross over to Europe. The only way for us to have a chance at bringing the Israelis back to the negotiating table is if we present a united front.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, this unity simply doesn't exist. In September, the UN General Assembly is scheduled to vote on whether to recognize a Palestinian state. But Chancellor Angela Merkel has already hinted that Germany might vote against it.

Asselborn: Now is the time for us to focus on getting the talks back into gear. If Germany's chancellor publicly rules out voting for a Palestinian state in the UN General Assembly, it takes all kinds of pressure off the Israeli government. And if the French president speaks out in favor of recognition, then the EU's two largest states will be standing on opposite sides of an important foreign-policy issue. As a result, we won't be taken seriously.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can the Europeans really exercise any pressure anyway? It seems like Israel can only really be influenced by its most important ally, the United States.

Asselborn: Obama is saying and doing the right thing. But there will be elections next year in the United States, and experience tells us that, in such situations, American presidential candidates grow less bold about taking a stance against the Israeli government. The pro-Israel lobby in the United States is very strong. We Europeans aren't exposed to the same amount of pressure.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So far, it's only been the Israelis' desire to upgrade relations with the EU that have been put on ice. Should the EU also consider downgrading relations?

Asselborn: In 2008, we wanted to honor Israel's wishes to have an upgrade. But we made such an upgrade contingent upon progress being made in the peace process. That unfortunately didn't happen. Now we find ourselves in a situation in which the Israeli government is doing all it can to stand in the way of new talks. For that reason, we in the EU should think about whether we can allow our relations with Israel to carry on as they have been. If the Israelis continue to dig their heels in and we just let them do what they want, it could lead to a new war. We Europeans need to send a signal -- not only with words but, if necessary, with actions as well. We need to consider political action if need be.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schult


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