Israel threatened last week to cut ties with the European Union's Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Fernando Gentilini, whose term was extended a few days ago. Senior officials in Israel's Foreign Ministry and European diplomats attributed the unusual threat to a tiny change in the EU Council mandate extending Gentilini's term, which included a reference to the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
The episode began a few weeks ago, when the EU's foreign affairs service sent Israel and the Palestinians drafts of Gentilini's new letter of appointment. Gentilini, who has served in the post since April 2015, was a personal appointee of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. He is considered a professional diplomat whose positions are balanced, who is friendly toward Israel and is acceptable to both Israel and the Palestinians.
When figures in the Foreign Ministry reviewed the draft resolution extending Gentilini's mandate, they noticed a few small changes compared to the original letter of appointment. Among them was the addition of a reference to United Nations Security Resolution 2334, adopted in December 2016, denouncing Israeli settlement activity in the territories.
"The EU Special Representative's mandate shall be to provide an active and efficient Union contribution to actions and initiatives leading to a final settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict based on the two-State solution and in line with the Union parameters and relevant UN Security Council Resolutions including UNSCR 2334," one article in the decision states.
Another article that was added says the special representative shall "work as appropriate to promote and contribute to a possible new framework of negotiations in particular through advancing the objectives of the Joint Declaration adopted by the participants of the conference held in Paris on 15 January 2017."
Senior officials in Israel's Foreign Ministry and European diplomats related that Israeli figures were infuriated over the inclusion of UN Security Council Resolution 2334. The sources say that Israel's Ambassador to the EU and NATO, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, and Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Alon Ushpiz contacted senior EU officials and told them that Israel would avoid all contact with Gentilini and would not cooperate with him if the changes introduced in his letter of appointment were not removed.
"They warned us of possible consequences if the mandate changes," a high-ranking European diplomat said.
Aides to Mogherini briefed the ambassadors of EU member states in Brussels about the Israeli threats and consulted with them on ways to solve the crisis. But a few prominent EU members, most notably France, rejected the Israeli arguments and said they would vote against extending Gentilini's mandate if Mogherini removed the changes to the special representative's letter of appointment due to pressure from Jerusalem.
Mogherini and members of her staff told Israel that EU member states refused to remove from the council decision the reference to the UN Security Council Resolution. They noted that Israel was invited to respond as it saw fit, but added a veiled threat of their own – if Israel shunned Gentilini, it would make it much more difficult for Mogherini to persuade EU member states to set a new date for the European summit with Israel, originally scheduled for February 28 but postponed by the EU in the wake of Israel's passage of the "regularization law" allowing for the expropriation of private Palestinian land.
Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem reconsidered the matter. Realizing that the damage would outweigh the benefits, they stopped threatening to shun Gentilini. A senior Foreign Ministry official described the solution that was devised – Israel would cooperate with Gentilini, but only in accordance with the terms stipulated in his original letter of appointment – as "Israbluff."
"It's as if you are 30, but I'll only talk to you as if you were just 29," said the official.
In a response, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that Israel was disappointed with the terms of Gentilini's new mandate.
Israel regrets the reference to UNSCR 2334 and the conclusions of the Paris peace conference in the terms of the mandate, which create obstacles to the renewal of direct bilateral negotiation between the parties. Externally imposed positions and one sided resolutions harm the cause of peace and distance the Palestinian side from the negotiating table. Israel will work with the EUSR only on those parts of his mandate, that are exactly ,the same as the old mandate that can advance this goal and will not cooperate with measures that are extraneous to that objective.
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