By Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA)
Will Benjamin Netanyahu address EU leaders in Brussels following a Cypriot initiative ?
Will the EU play a role in reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians ?
Will Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address EU leaders in Brussels for the first time as part of a new push by the international community to restart the peace process ?
The possibility of such an address was first raised by the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, during his visit in Israel in June. He raised again the idea when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Nicosia this week at his invitation. Cyprus, a member state of the European Union, is apparently pushing an initiative to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Although Cyprus is considered sympathetic towards Palestinians, its relations with Israel have grown in recent years.
Netanyahu, who has very friendly relations with the Cypriot president, responded to the Cypriot initiative by stating: “I would welcome the opportunity to present Israel’s position to the EU.”
He told the president: “This would be a very worthwhile initiative that you, Nicos, have brought up.”
He continued, “You’ve often said to me after our conversations: Why don’t you have the opportunity to present these simple facts and these simple arguments to Europe?”
Netanyahu called the idea to address the EU Council (the meeting of all 28 EU leaders) “a very good idea.”
He said he would ‘’continue to discuss’’ this idea with EU Council President Donald Tusk, the former Polish Prime Minister, when he visits Israel in a few weeks.
“We want to achieve peace. Peace is dependent on security, and ultimately bif you don’t have a capacity to defend the peace, it collapses very rapidly in our area,” Netanyahu told his Cypriot host, adding that “peace also depends on the willingness of parties to talk to one another and to try to put ancient issues behind them or at least resolve them in a way that they don’t prevent us from seizing the future.”
The Cypriots authorities have extended a similar invitation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to separately address the EU. President Anastasiades reportedly phoned Abbas on Monday and briefed him on the initiative before his meeting with Netanyahu on Tuesday.
But contrary to Abbas, for Netanyahu, it would be his first visit in Brussels and first address to the EU Council as Prime Minister, even though he has spoken three times before a joint session of the US Congress.
To date, no Israeli Prime Minister has addressed the EU since its creation in 1993. Shimon Peres, who was then the Foreign Minister and acting Prime Minister, visited Brussels, but did not formally speak to the body as a whole.
Several Israeli foreign ministers have visited Brussels or Luxembourg as part of the EU-Israel Cooperation Council.
Observers also noted that EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who has reiterated the EU’s willingness to play a more active role in the Middle East, visited Cyprus last week end on her way to Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Cypriot initiative comes a week after the European Union said it will explore setting up a new international format to breathe life back into the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the meantime, media have reported that Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, who was appointed to Israel’s negotiator with the Palestinians, and his counterpart in the Palestinian Authority Saeb Erekat met secretly in Amman last week to “break the ice” in trying to restart peace talks.
The meeting, which was okayed by both Netanyahu and Abbas, followed a phone call between the two leaders, the first since more than a year.
Since the fourth Netanyahu government was formed in May, Silvan Shalom, a former Foreign Minister, has been saying that if the Palestinians were serious and willing to hold a true negotiation without preconditions, they will find a real partner in Israel.
“We need to resume the negotiations with the Palestinians, even though we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said at a conference of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, adding that Israel has publicly announced that it wants to resume the negotiations immediately but that “desire from both sides” is required to do so.
What is interesting now is that senior European Union officials as well as officials in the Jordanian government were involved in organizing the talks.
Fernando Gentilini, the EU special representative for the Middle East peace process, who was named last May and is based in Jerusalem, even suggested holding the meeting in Brussels. But Erekat proposed Amman as a neutral venue for talks.
Now that the US is “out of the game” because of the Iran nuclear agreement, the Cypriot initiative opens the way for a European role in trying to jump-start peace talks. But to be a honest broker, the EU needs to show that it is willing to have a balanced position and that it doesn’t intend to put pressure only on one side, Israel, as it did until now in its various statements.