European ministers seek options to stop West Bank annexation

Oliver Holmes

The Guardian / July 14, 2020

Israel could be deterred from acting, 11 politicians say in joint letter to EU foreign policy chief.

Foreign ministers from 11 European countries have demanded the EU quickly provide them with a list of possible actions to stop Israel annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank.

In a letter addressed to the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and seen by the Guardian, the top politicians asked for the potential “legal consequences” for Israel of annexation and its effect on the country’s agreements with the EU.

The letter was signed by foreign ministers from Belgium, Ireland, Italy, France, Malta, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Finland – countries that have pushed back against the pledge by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to annex land.

“The possible annexation by Israel of parts of the occupied Palestinian territory remains a matter of grave concern for the EU and its member states,” the letter said.

It added that a list of options would “contribute to our efforts to deter annexation”, suggesting Israel may be dissuaded from acting if confronted with potential concrete steps.

Some EU countries have pushed for punitive measures, including economic sanctions, as well as the possible recognition of a Palestinian state. However, the body, which makes decisions by consensus, is divided, with Israel relying on support from allies in eastern and central Europe to block moves against it.

In the letter, sent to Borrell on Friday, ministers repeated what they said was a request made at an informal meeting on 15 May when they asked him to draw up a list of potential responses to annexation, called an “options paper”.

“We understand that this is a sensitive issue and timing is important, but time is also short. We are concerned that the window to deter annexation is fast closing,” the letter said.

In February, Borrell said Israeli annexation, “if implemented, could not pass unchallenged”, but acknowledged the EU bloc could not easily move without full agreement. The Guardian has contacted the European commission for comment.

Netanyahu has said Israel will “apply sovereignty” to up to 30% of the West Bank, covering Israeli settlements and the fertile farmlands of the Jordan Valley.

Under a deal signed with the former opposition party, his government set 1 July to begin that process, although delays were expected and few preparations have been made. Some of Netanyahu’s domestic critics allege the leader promised annexation to win election support from ultra-nationalists but does not plan on carrying out such a controversial step.

Netanyahu had also said he wants to annex in coordination with Donald Trump, whose “vision for peace” plan unveiled in January already envisions incorporating the same territory into Israel. Washington has since sent mixed messages on whether it supports annexation.

The Palestinian leadership has rejected the plan.

On Tuesday evening Boris Johnson spoke with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to repeat his concerns about Israel’s proposal to annex the West Bank, after raising similar concerns with Netanyahu last week.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister urged President Abbas to engage in negotiations and offered the UK’s support to foster dialogue. The leaders agreed to continue to work together on this issue and others.”

Last month, a letter signed by more than 1,000 European parliamentarians, including senior Conservative figures in the UK, said “acquisition of territory by force has no place in 2020 and must have commensurate consequences”. It called on European leaders to “act decisively”.

Separately, 47 UN experts said annexation “would be the crystallisation of an already unjust reality: two peoples living in the same space, ruled by the same state, but with profoundly unequal rights”.

They added: “This is a vision of a 21st-century apartheid.”

Oliver Holmes is the Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian