The European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell declared on Monday that the EU would continue to push for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, rejecting assertions by Israeli leaders that Palestinian statehood is “off the table.” The statements come amid high-level meetings between Israeli, Palestinian and EU ministers in Brussels to discuss paths forward following another flare up of violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Israel-Hamas Violence Prompts EU Peace Push
Tensions between Israel and Hamas erupted into open conflict over two weeks ago when Israel launched a series of airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza in response to rocket attacks from the militant group. The strikes left over 200 Palestinians dead and large parts of Gaza’s infrastructure in ruins. Hamas and other Gaza militant groups retaliated by firing hundreds more rockets into Israel, killing 10 Israelis.
A ceasefire was eventually brokered by Egypt, but the fighting has put the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the spotlight. With tensions still high, the violence has added urgency to international efforts to reach a lasting peace.
Hoping to capitalize on the global attention, EU foreign ministers invited Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh to Brussels this week to discuss ways forward. The EU has long advocated for a two-state solution that would see Israel and an independent Palestine existing side-by-side.
Israeli airstrikes caused widespread destruction in Gaza. (Photo Credit: Adel Hana/AP)
However, in opening remarks on Monday, Borrell made clear the EU rejects recent comments from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Palestinian statehood is “off the table.”
“I think it is very important to push for a two-state solution,” Borrell stated. “This is the basis for a peaceful solution and coexistence. We need to explore space for re-launching the political process.”
Israel Pushes Back on Two-State Vision
Minister Cohen pushed back against Borrell’s comments, defending Netanyahu’s position that prioritizing Gaza reconstruction and Gaza demilitarization must come before discussions on Palestinian statehood restart.
“We want to focus on the humanitarian situation first. We want to weaken Hamas,” Cohen said. “Then we can focus on political solutions.”
The Israeli government argues a demilitarized Gaza and stable security situation must be achieved before concessions are made on Palestinian statehood. There are also concerns among Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition that an independent Palestine could threaten Israel’s security.
At the meetings, Cohen accused Hamas of exacerbating Gazan suffering and presented maps depicting rocket sites in Gaza he said were deliberately placed near schools and hospitals. He called on the international community to join Israel in demanding Hamas disarm before providing reconstruction assistance.
Minister Al-Sheikh countered by condemning Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” and said Palestinian demands have not changed.
“We want an end to the occupation, the creation of our independent state based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Al-Sheikh said.
EU Weighs Stronger Incentives for Progress
While the ministers made little tangible progress, the EU foreign ministers in attendance indicated stronger “incentives” could be offered if the parties demonstrate willingness to negotiate. There was also consensus that the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza requires immediate attention.
“The situation in Gaza is disastrous from a human point of view,” Borrell told press after the meetings. He pledged €18 million in new EU assistance for Gaza reconstruction efforts.
To incentivize progress on political reconciliation, Borrell said the EU is considering an upgrade in relations with Israel and Palestine, including increased trade and academic exchanges. The EU is one of Israel’s largest trade partners and donors to the Palestinian Authority.
There were also discussions around conditioning some EU assistance on verifiable progress on issues like Gaza reconstruction, cessation of settlement expansion and Palestinian economic development.
“We have made it clear that deepening of relations with both parties depends on their engagement towards a lasting peace,” Borrell stated.
However, significant obstacles remain to achieving a two-state resolution. The meetings highlighted just how far apart the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority are on core final status issues like borders, security and the status of Jerusalem.
Past negotiations have repeatedly broken down over these thorny disputes, with neither side willing to make concessions the other finds acceptable.
There are also questions around the commitment of the new Israeli government, which relies on right-wing factions strongly opposed to Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu presided over expansion of Israeli settlements even while publicly endorsing the two-state vision during his last tenure.
For any progress, the EU and US will likely need to exert more direct pressure through diplomatic and economic leverage. But Israeli leaders have previously resisted such external pressure.
Ultimately, for talks to succeed both parties will need to demonstrate willingness to compromise. With the conflict increasingly destabilizing the region, there are hopes the human toll of the recent violence coupled with strong international encouragement could inspire political will for reconciliation.
|No return to pre-1967 lines due to security concerns around narrow borders. Wants to retain large settlement blocs in West Bank.
|Demands Israel withdraw fully from occupied territories to allow for contiguous Palestinian state based on 1967 ceasefire line borders.
|United capital of Israel. Rules out division of city.
|East Jerusalem as capital of Palestinian state.
|Rejects right of return for refugees displaced in 1948 war and descendants. Some could resettle in Palestine but not Israel.
|Approximately 5 million refugees and descendants have right to return to homes now inside Israel.
|Demilitarized Palestinian state. Israeli control over Palestinian borders and airspace. Right to re-intervene militarily in Palestinian territory.
|Palestinians control own borders and security but open to evenhanded 3rd party monitoring like NATO or UN.
While the harsh realities on the ground can seem intractable, this week’s meetings represent some small progress. Keeping political reconciliation and the two-state solution alive as shared goals between Israel, Palestinians and the international community lays a foundation for future progress when conditions allow.
With sufficient political courage and risk-taking from Israeli and Palestinian leaders coupled with firm international backing, the glimmer of hope for peace illuminated this week in Brussels could yet grow into a beacon pointing the way forward after decades of darkness.
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