'Israel Can't Afford to Postpone Mideast Peace Much Longer'

Miguel Moratinos, former European envoy to the Middle East, says peace agreement with Palestinians, Syria, could do much to thwart Iran's ambitions.

MADRID - When I read on Tuesday that the European Union's foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, had announced that she is "concerned" by the plan to build 1,300 new homes in Har Homa, and said that this contradicts the efforts to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, I was reminded of something I had heard a day earlier from the outgoing Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Moratinos- Getty Images
Getty Images

"We Europeans excel at declarations," said the man who has clocked more Middle East hours than any other statesman on the neighboring continent. "It is compensation for our scarcity of action."

I rummaged through Haaretz's archives and found a newspaper whose front-page headline reported on a crisis in the talks with the Palestinians, and tension between Israel and the United States and European Union, because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to stop construction in Har Homa. Further along, it said that the EU envoy to the Middle East had told the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram that Netanyahu had offered "a sort of freeze" on settlement construction in the territories, to enable a resumption of talks with the Palestinians. According to the envoy, the Israeli government was making an effort to break the deadlock, but had ideological limitations to contend with back at home. The envoy threatened that unless progress was made in the next few days, the EU would launch an initiative that would be like "an electric shock."

The newspaper was dated June 8, 1997. The name of the European envoy was Miguel Angel Moratinos.

"Yes, I am very familiar with Abba Eban's immortal saying - that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," says Moratinos. He has also heard that later in his life, Eban added that unfortunately the observation also applied to the Israelis.

"I am afraid," the diplomat adds, "that unless change occurs soon in the situation in the Middle East, it will be possible to say of the international community as well that it never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to end the Israeli-Arab conflict."

The interview with Moratinos took place at the foreign minister's opulent and well-secured official residence, close to Plaza Mayor. A few weeks from now, the 59-year-old Spanish diplomat will bid farewell to his home of the past six years.

Smiling broadly, he says this is his first interview since Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero instructed him, three weeks ago, to hand over the foreign ministry immediately to the country's health minister, Trinidad Jimenez. This happened a few days after Moratinos returned from yet another visit to the Middle East, this time with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner. That was the visit that made headlines thanks to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who ran to tell the press how he had taught his guests a lesson.

Moratinos says Lieberman was among the many foreign ministers who sought to commiserate with him about being fired from his post. As was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 1996 Moratinos was appointed the EU's special envoy to the Middle East. In 2004 he was elected to the Spanish parliament on the Socialist Party ticket, and was appointed foreign minister. He did not pass up an opportunity to return to the arena he knew and preferred. European leaders, headed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, wanted Moratinos to be appointed the EU's foreign minister last year, but Zapatero, who now has sacked him, was not willing at the time to give him up. The job went to the British politician Ashton.

Now, Moratinos has been ousted as part of a general reshuffling of the cabinet designed to boost Jimenez's public profile. Jimenez is very familiar with Tel Aviv. In the 1980s she spent three years there, when her partner was stationed at the Spanish embassy in Israel. However, confidants say she is unlikely to be a frequent flyer at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Jimenez previously served as deputy foreign minister for Latin American affairs; for her first trip overseas in her new post, she chose Bolivia and Ecuador.

'I'm frustrated'

You said recently at a conference in Paris that you are disappointed with how the leadership of the international community has handled the Middle East conflict.

Moratinos: "Indeed, I am very frustrated by the lack of success on our part, the Europeans and the rest of the world leaders, to bring good news to the world. Since the defeat of the apartheid regime in South Africa, statesmen have not resolved any conflict in any region in the world. I've said that I myself, as the foreign minister of Spain, which was president of the EU at the time [in 2010], bear responsibility for this failure. Statesmen make a living from problems and from international disputes. If they rush to solve them all, they will be left unemployed and bored."

Do you include in this failure your inability to stop settlement expansion in the territories? While we are conversing, Israel has decided to expand Har Homa, and the negotiations are slipping away.

"I have difficulty understanding why Israel refuses to freeze the settlements, and fervently hope that in the coming days, a creative solution will be found that will enable the negotiations to resume. Every day that goes by is a pity. We learned in school about the Hundred Years' War that made life in Europe miserable. You and the Arabs have been fighting for more than 60 years already, and if you go on like this, you stand to break our record."

Throughout the years Europe has tailored its Middle East policy to the positions of the United States. What will happen if, in the wake of the defeat in Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama washes his hands of the peace process? Will you too leave us to our own devices?

"The U.S. was and always will be the leading factor, but other players are required. The role of the Quartet has to be redefined, and the EU also must deepen its involvement in the region. It wasn't simple to design a coherent EU Middle East policy when we were 15 countries, let alone when the Union has 27 members. Nevertheless, in recent years even Israel, which was unwilling to hear of a presence of European forces in the territories, has looked upon them cordially. The Palestinians have informed us that when an independent state is established, and the Israel Defense Forces leaves the territories, they will welcome NATO forces in their area."

At your stormy dinner with Lieberman, he said that we can live for another few generations without an agreement, and suggested you spend your time straightening out other countries in the world.

"First of all, I do not understand why he said that we had a harsh exchange of words. It is true that we had an essential difference of opinion over resolving the conflict, but the conversation was conducted in a businesslike and serious spirit. I agreed with the things he said regarding the need to improve the economic and security situation in the territories, but both Kouchner and I unequivocally disputed his position that the two-state solution can be left for future generations. Time is not on the side of the moderate forces in the region, and if we do not reach an agreement in the coming year, the situation might escalate."

Soon it will be a decade since the talks between Israel and the Palestinians at Taba, when Ehud Barak was prime minister. You were the sole foreign observer who documented those talks. You are familiar with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' positions on the core issues. Do you see any essential differences?

"The Palestinian position has not changed since the Taba talks. It is almost completely identical to the understandings that Ehud Olmert reached with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. I have no doubt that these will ultimately be the outline of the agreement. Ten years were squandered for nothing.

"Meanwhile, I am following with concern the process of Israel's delegitimization in Europe. A few months ago we were about to approve the upgrade in relations between the Union and Israel, and because of the flotilla affair we had to postpone it yet again."

Are you in favor of the Security Council proclaiming a Palestinian state?

"Contrary to the opinion of my good friend Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, I do not believe in a solution imposed by the UN or any other party. The international community can present the sides with proposals for mediation, but in the end you and the Palestinians are the ones who will have to implement the agreement. I was convinced by what Netanyahu said during the last meeting I had with him in Jerusalem, with Kouchner - that he is truly interested in reaching a permanent agreement within a year or two.

"I also believe that an agreement can be reached with Syria on the basis of the Shepherdstown document the Americans presented to the sides more than 10 years ago. President Assad told me a few months ago that the time has come to move from diplomacy to statesmanship. He said that after Israel has signed a peace treaty with Jordan and adopted the solution of a Palestinian state, it is time for decisions on the Syrian track as well."

Does Israel have a military option for dealing with Iran?

"Categorically: There is no such option. The international community is continuing talks with Iran in an effort to reach an agreement, and we have other means of persuading the Iranians to comply with international decisions. Just recently I met with Foreign Minister [Manouchehr] Mottaki and voiced harsh criticism about the Iranian aggression toward Israel. I believe that an agreement with the Palestinians that ends the occupation and an agreement with Syria would contribute greatly to resolving the crisis with Iran."

Even after departing the Foreign Ministry, Moratinos consented to coordinate the Barcelona Process, also known as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, to forge cooperation between the Maghreb countries, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Malta and Turkey. On Monday at noon Moratinos told me he would be returning to Israel in another week, to advance preparations for a meeting in Barcelona with representatives of the partnership. That same evening, however, it was announced that the Arab leaders had decided to suspend their participation in this effort, pending the deadline of an additional extension the Arab League has given the Americans to deal with the settlement-building crisis in the territories.

Moratinos will be back. Statesmen, he says, love conflicts.