On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of the European Union, including Guido Westerwelle of Germany, are scheduled to conduct their first-ever joint meeting with their counterparts from the Arab League. At the meeting, top European and Arab diplomats are expected to discuss the civil war in Syria as well as the stalled Middle East peace process. Among the most contentious issues to be addressed is that of Israel's policy of settlement-building in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Last Tuesday, the Israeli government said it would move forward with the construction of 1,200 houses in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, issued a statement expressing Europe's "deep regrets" over the development. "Settlements are illegal under international law," Ashton wrote. "The EU has repeatedly urged the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, in line with its obligations under the roadmap." In Berlin, too, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the development is a "hindrance" to the peace process.
In the run-up to Tuesday's meeting in Cairo, SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn about the recent developments in the region.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israel just bombed Syrian positions for the first time in decades after Syrian mortar shells struck the Golan Heights on Thursday. Is there a threat that the civil war will spill over into the neighboring country?
Asselborn: I don't think so. The Israeli military reacted very level-headedly to the Syrian shells. Turkey also showed similar understanding for the chaotic situation in Syria several weeks ago. Nonetheless, Israel should also consider that the Syrian shells landed in the Golan Heights, which is not considered to be Israeli territory under international law.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Violence is also escalating in the Gaza Strip.
Asselborn: No one can or should justify violence -- not even if it originates with Palestinians in Gaza. But you also have to address the reasons behind such violence. Anyone who knows Gaza knows the kind of pressure cooker the place is. Peace and security for Israel cannot be achieved through walls and fences nor with tanks and rockets. In the interest of the Palestinian as well as Israeli children, a prospect for peace needs finally to be created.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered to meet the Palestinian president immediately in Ramallah or Jerusalem for peace talks. Why are the Palestinians rejecting this offer?
Asselborn: Because it is just lip service. The Israeli settlement policy is an affront to every Palestinian because it is a constant provocation. The number of Jewish settlers in the areas occupied by Israel is growing faster than the Palestinian birth rate -- calculations by the United Nations show that. The Israeli government is permitting the construction of apartments on land where they do not belong. There are roads that only settlers are allowed to use and separate streets for the Palestinian people. In addition, the number of violent acts perpetrated by settlers increased by 32 percent during the past year. Many of the perpetrators go unpunished.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the beginning of his term in office, Netanyahu announced an eight-month moratorium on construction -- a step that put him under domestic political pressure. Why didn't Abbas take advantage?
Asselborn: That was no true freeze on settlement activity, because construction that had already been approved could still be carried out. You can't expect the Palestinians to negotiate under these circumstances. Israel must halt settlement construction entirely -- and then negotiations can begin. If things continue to proceed as they do now, the Palestinians will soon have no chance left for a connected national territory.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the Palestinians also continue to provoke the Israelis. Abbas intends to apply for observer status at the United Nations.
Asselborn: That is an absolutely justified request and not a provocation. It is often forgotten that the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of 1948 provided for two states -- Israel next to an Arab state. After the Palestinians failed in their bid last year to be recognized as a state by the UN Security Council, Abbas announced he would follow the Vatican model and apply for the status of an observer state at the General Assembly. He even offered to formulate the resolution together with the Israelis, but Netanyahu refused.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the European Union support this effort?
Asselborn: At the very least, the EU will try to speak with one voice. The common position cannot be that we all say "no." Even an abstention by all 27 EU member states would be meaningless in my view. I assume that a few will abstain but that the rest will vote with a "yes."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It is hard to imagine the German government doing anything that Israel so flatly rejects.
Asselborn: The fact that the German government is concerned about the interests of the Israeli state is a historical mandate. But in Berlin, one should not equate the interests of the Israeli people with those of the Netanyahu government. Israeli security will only improve dramatically if the Palestinians get their own state. The two-state solution is not a gift to the Palestinians. It is the basis for peace in Israel.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How are things looking in London and Paris?
Asselborn: It appears that France and Great Britain are tending towards a yes. That will hopefully have an influence on the German position.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Dutch have also traditionally supported the Israelis. Has that changed with the new government in The Hague?
Asselborn: I have the impression that the Dutch are acting in a more open-minded and forward-thinking manner on the Palestinian matter then they have previously.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Israelis fear that observer status at the UN would give the Palestinians the right to sue Israeli politicians and military officers at the International Criminal Court.
Asselborn: International law applies to all people. As a country that adheres to the rule of law, Israel shouldn't have a problem with that. It appears to me that Netanyahu has another reason to oppose an upgrade of the Palestinians' status at the United Nations. In practical terms, this upgrade in international recognition would be a step toward an independent state. Netanyahu doesn't want that.