Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the European Union’s top foreign policy official last week that he wants to resume talks with the Palestinians, with his goal being to reach understandings on the borders of settlement blocs that Israel would annex under any peace agreement.
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An Israeli source briefed on Netanyahu’s meeting with Federica Mogherini last Wednesday said the prime minister explained that in this way, it would be clear what parts of the West Bank Israel could continue building in.
The meeting was held in a very small forum. Aside from Netanyahu, the only Israeli officials present were National Security Adviser Joseph Cohen and the prime minister’s envoy for the peace process, attorney Isaac Molho.
Netanyahu ascribed great importance to the meeting with Mogherini, who came here with the declared intention of determining whether Israeli-Palestinian talks can be renewed. A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu’s main goal at the meeting was to display readiness and even eagerness for a resumption of the talks, given the EU’s deep distrust of him over the Palestinian issue.
Netanyahu is very concerned by preparations in Brussels to impose sanctions such as labeling settlement produce in EU supermarkets, as well as by the French push for a UN Security Council resolution that would lay down principles for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Right at the start of his meeting with Mogherini, Netanyahu restated his commitment to the principle of “two states for two peoples” for the cameras, saying that his support for establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state hasn’t changed. This is the first time he has said such a thing since his new government was formed. During the election campaign, in a pitch to right-wing voters, he vowed that no Palestinian state would arise as long as he is prime minister.
Mogherini responded with a diplomatic gesture of her own: Instead of using the phrase “two-state solution,” she used the phrase Israel prefers, “two states for two peoples,” which indirectly acknowledges Israel’s demand for recognition as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is the first time she has used this phrase.
The Israeli source briefed on their private meeting said Mogherini told Netanyahu that she valued his statements, but they weren’t enough. “I’m interested in also seeing steps on the ground that will back up your declarations and show commitment to a solution of two states for two peoples,” the source quoted her as saying.
Netanyahu responded that he wants to resume talks with the Palestinians as soon as possible, and that he wants these talks to focus on the settlement blocs.
“It’s clear there are areas that will remain under Israeli control under any agreement, just as it’s clear there are areas that will remain under Palestinian control under any agreement,” the source quoted Netanyahu as saying. “Therefore, we can advance toward understandings on which areas we can continue building in, since in any case, they’ll remain under Israeli control.”
This is the first time since he took office in 2009 that Netanyahu has voiced willingness to discuss the size of the settlement blocs and their borders with the Palestinians. This is also the first time he has voiced willingness, albeit indirectly, to freeze construction outside the blocs.
During the U.S.-led negotiations in 2009-11, the Americans had proposed trying to delineate the settlement blocs that would remain Israeli so that Israel could continue building there. But Netanyahu refused.
During the next round of U.S.-led negotiations, in 2013-14, Netanyahu refused to hold any substantive discussion of the borders of a Palestinian state. He presented no maps or territorial offers, nor would he even outline the settlement blocs he wanted Israel to keep.
Another Israeli source privately updated about the meeting expressed doubts about the sincerity of Netanyahu's remarks, saying it seemed to him that the prime minister was putting on an appearance of flexibility because of international pressure alone.
"In the past, when his proposal would have been possible to implement from the Palestinian stance, he would not have been ready to do it," the source said. "Now, when he is showing a willingness to do it, it is no longer relevant as far as the Palestinian are concerned."
Both senior Israeli officials and European diplomats said that Mogherini left the meeting with Netanyahu very pleased, terming it a success. They said she and her staff agreed that Netanyahu had done the maximum possible to try to signal the European Union that he’s interested in turning over a new leaf.
Nevertheless, these sources added, Mogherini and her staff had trouble deciding whether Netanyahu’s stated willingness to discuss the boundaries of the settlement blocs was authentic, indicating the possibility of a breakthrough, or nothing more than vague declarations aimed at easing European pressure and earning himself renewed international legitimacy.
The current composition of the Israeli government, along with Netanyahu's historical record on every aspect of the peace process, does not instill particular hope in Mogherini and her colleagues. Still, the European Union's foreign policy chief believes it is worth it to invest the efforts and investigate the extent of Netanyahu's security on the one hand and on the other, how willing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be to drop unilateral motions and return to the negotiating table.
Mogherini is also operating on another channel, trying to enlist the Sunni Arab states to support a renewal of the peace process. Netanyahu himself has emphasized a number of times over the last few weeks his desire to involve these states in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
On Sunday, a few days after meeting Netanyahu, Mogherini traveled to Doha where she met with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Mogherini asked her counterparts in the six Gulf states to help reignite the peace process and even to updated the Arab peace initiative from 2003 – which Israel has never official responded to.
"I believe that a GCC engagement, especially revising the Arab peace initiative, could be crucial to offer a new regional framework - a new international framework - to relaunch the Peace Process," Mogherini said at the end of the talks in Doha.
Jack Khoury adds:
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Haaretz on Tuesday that Netanyahu's proposal was an attempt to legitimize the settlements, an issue he said that the Palestinians were not prepared to accept.
Erekat, a member of the PLO's executive committee, said that the Palestinian stance was very clear: West Bank settlements are not legitimate and there is therefore no place for discussion about their borders, according to international law.