nakba - Reuters - June 24 2011
A Palestinian refugee walking past a banner during a Nakba Day protest in Jordan last month. Photo by Reuters
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Ashton: “Deals require people to consider the position of the other.” Photo by AP

BRUSSELS - With Greece in turmoil, the Spanish economy collapsing and the French political system in a state of upheaval, the leaders of the European Union are nonetheless putting time and energy into getting the ball rolling again on the Israeli-Palestinian front. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, followed by European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, last week visited the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Both returned to Brussels as confused as ever.

What does Netanyahu mean when he hints that he would be interested in hearing new ideas? And how are we to interpret all the talk about Abbas looking for a way out of the latest corner he's backed himself into - in this case the UN vote on recognizing an independent Palestine in September? And is there any truth to the messages making their way here from Washington to the effect that President Barack Obama is tired of serving as Netanyahu's life preserver and that the biggest superpower in the world really does not feel like joining Micronesia and the Marshall Islands in voting against recognition of Palestine?

Upon her return from the Middle East, Ashton found a newspaper clip on her desk from The Telegraph of Britain, which cited a classified diplomatic document, which was released under freedom of information request, that described how unsuitable she was for her current position. Her critics maintain that Ashton's shortcomings - meager diplomatic experience and excessive caution - were the reason she was chosen for the job. Ashton's fans say that precisely because of these traits, she does a wonderful job of maneuvering herself among the 27 European raindrops.

On the eve of her trip to the Middle East, Ashton sent a letter to the members of the Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - urging them to adopt Obama's blueprint for a solution based on the June 4, 1967, lines, with territorial swaps, as a starting point for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. She wrote that if the conflict is to be resolved, swift progress is required. Since then, she has been on their case constantly.

Back to the negotiating table

"My letter was a manifestation of an awful lot of work to try and get the Quartet principals together, in order that we can and try and put that work that's been going on to good effect, with something from the Quartet that might be able to persuade the parties that there is enough support to get back into negotiations," Ashton told me on Tuesday, in an interview held in her office at EU headquarters in Brussels. She said that the EU has invested considerable efforts in trying to get negotiations restarted before the anticipated UN vote in September. "I believe the Quartet is key, because potentially it can bring comfort to both parties," she said. "It always seems to me that one of the most critical parts is not only understanding why the key issues matter so much to each [side], but their feeling that if they take the risk of being in negotiations that the international community will stand with them both and see that through."

Do you really believe that negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas can lead to a final-status solution?

"What I think is missing perhaps is trying to find that framework that enables them to start talking to each other. Where they end up is up to them. And those negotiations will undoubtedly be quite tough because each has got to think about the core issues and find a way through that delivers for their people, while recognizing that it's going to be a deal, and deals require people to consider the position of the other."

And will the Netanyahu government be able at the same time to continue to expand the settlements?

"Well, you know our position is that settlements are illegal under international law, full stop. The best way of solving the settlements in the end is going to be the negotiation on the territory. But I can understand why the Palestinians feel that it's very difficult for them. However, again, if we can find the right framework, the best possibility to resolve this for all time is to get the talks moving and get an agreement."

The position of Europe is very clear: that Hamas is on the terrorist list and it has not accepted the requirements of the Quartet. Do you accept the veto imposed by Netanyahu on the diplomatic process if the Palestinians establish a national unity government?

"That's right, and that position has not changed. President Abbas has always made it clear that he is the president and it's with him that the negotiations will take place. And what he's trying to set up - I think he calls it a technocratic government. And the purpose of that is to bring in, as he always says to me, independent people who've been nominated and who will come in for the elections. In talking to President Abbas, I understand his strong desire to bring his people together. And that's why we were cautious in our welcome.

"I think that what will be important in whatever happens is the elections, and the sense in which the work that [PA Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad is doing, under his great leadership in my view, continues. Because it's the building of those institutions of the state that are going to be so important in the end, to make sure that the Palestinian people really do have their own state and their own future. I really hope that we will be able to make progress long before the elections and that he will be able to show his people that the option of having their own state, side by side with a secure Israel, will be on the cards."

Do you expect to have a coherent EU position regarding the UN vote, if there is a vote in September?

"Well, first of all, we have to see if there's a vote. Secondly, I don't know what the resolution's going to say. And it will depend very much on what the resolution says as to how the international community in general and the EU states in particular, vote. It's quite possible that there could be a vote at the UN where the European Union states have no difficulty in voting for that."

You spoke about your positive impression of Abbas' commitment to an agreement. On Sunday you met with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Did you have the impression that he is also committed?

"I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is as aware as anyone can be that for the future of Israel, he wants to see a settled and secure State of Israel. The discussion is how we get there, and I have impressed upon him, as far as I can, that with the changing neighborhood, with the economic climates of all of the countries around, this is an even more important moment to move.

"I also understand that he and the government seem quite stable. In Israel, governments, I think, tend to change, or coalitions tend to change reasonably often, and this seems to have quite a long life span. And history teaches us that it's when you are secure in your government that you actually make moves that require bravery and statesmanship. And I say that not because I think a solution is about bravery, it's about doing what needs to be done, but because you have to carry people with you, many of whom disagree with your actions. "And therefore for me, from the perspective of a secure Israel, this is the moment to do something. This is the moment to remove this issue from the elections that will take place in countries surrounding Israel. It's to remove this issue when you are trying to develop the economy of your country and advance your economic status with the European Union and elsewhere. It's to remove this issue so it's not any longer an issue which drains resources, and to remove this issue because you're giving your children and your grandchildren a guarantee about their future with their nearest neighbor. And all of those elements seem to me to be in play now, so I'm trying to impress on him to do that. Prime Minister Netanyahu does me the courtesy of always listening to what I say, and we will see whether in the course of the next weeks, through both the envoys' work and the Quartet, we can give him the - well, give him, in a sense, the courage to do that as well, to make that choice."

But Netanyahu's approach is that the unrest taking place after the Arab Spring is not a suitable climate for negotiations. He claims that first there has to be order in Syria and Libya, and mainly that we have to wait for the elections in Egypt.

"The conflict in the Middle East has been there for a long, long time. People need a solution to it on both sides, a resolution to it. And it's, I think, right and proper for all of us to keep at it. It doesn't mean I don't focus, and we don't focus, on trying to deal with Iran. As you know I'm a negotiator for the Iranian nuclear talks, and that is something I care deeply about. It doesn't mean that we're not engaged with Syria, where I have reports daily from our delegation that are there, and we're trying to work with Turkey and others and look for ways in which we can put the pressure on."

You also met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. You probably heard that afterward he threatened that in the event that the UN recognizes a Palestinian state, he will declare that Oslo is void.

"At a moment in a long discussion he said something like that, but I'm not sure that it's up to him to declare that Oslo is void really. I don't accept that Oslo is void - it would be a different world."

Why should Israelis rely on the international community when they are witness to its helplessness in the face of the massacre in Syria? How much time will you give Syrian President Bashar Assad to continue killing his people?

"Well, it's terrible what's happening there. I've spoken to the Syrian foreign minister and made it clear that they need to reach a nonviolent response to people's demonstrations, but, you know, this really is an awful situation."

A changing neighborhood

Ashton says that the events in Syria illustrate the need for change on the part of Israelis and Palestinians. "Your neighborhood has changed, so when you have in the middle of all this an old conflict that has to be resolved - and I believe people have the capacity to do this - I genuinely believe that if they would decide to do it, it's doable. Then they [political leaders] have more responsibility than ever for the people of Israel and the Palestinian people to actually do it. I can't stress that enough."

Your handling of the Iranian nuclear program is not exactly a success story either.

"I've had two rounds of negotiations with the Iranians, with Dr. Saeed Jalili [head of the Iranian delegation for talks on the nuclear issue], who's my counterpart, and I've said to him the same throughout - that if Iran is serious about this being a civil nuclear program, show us. This is not difficult, let the inspectors do their job, show us what you have, get international support to build your civil program because you can't build one these days without it, and work with the international community. It's still on the table and remains on the table. And we've been in correspondence since, and I've met the new foreign minister.

"They say that that's not what they're doing [developing nuclear weapons], but anyone looking at the circumstantial evidence of that, I think, would find it hard to believe, and it is in their hands to change their course and show that it's not what they want to do. In that we engage with a lot of different countries to try and use our economic pressure. We've had sanctions, they've been effective, that we do know. But just to say as well that we're also really concerned about the human rights situation, and we've taken sanctions on that as well."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly declares that the continuation of the Iranian nuclear program leaves all the options open for Israel. He probably is referring to the military option as well. What is your opinion?

"I don't want to get into what Defense Minister Barak may have said. If we want to have a more secure region, the critical thing is to try and persuade the Iranians to move away from this. I also put it this way - that if you sign up to a treaty, the non-proliferation treaty, then not only do you have an obligation to abide by it, but you have an obligation to make sure other people do as well. That's why it's so important that the G5 plus 1 are negotiating as a team. That's why it's so important that you've got the different sanctions in play."

In other words, you rule out the military option?

"I just think that if we could find a negotiated agreement to it, that would be much, much better."