France and Spain are laying the political groundwork for the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state — possibly as early as October 2011 — even if negotiations for a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not concluded.

The initiative is being spearheaded by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Ángel Moratinos, whose country currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union.

Palestinian Authority leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad have repeatedly said they intend to unilaterally declare Palestinian independence before the end of 2011, with or without a peace deal. Abbas and Fayyad have been visiting European capitals in recent months to drum up political and financial support for Palestinian statehood. Kouchner and Moratinos laid out their vision for Europe’s role in creating a Palestinian state in a recent opinion article titled “A Palestinian State: When?” The article, which was published in French by the center-left newspaper Le Monde, reminds readers that the European Union is the biggest single provider of financial aid to the Palestinians. Often described as a “payer but not a player” in the Middle East, the authors argue that the European Union must work more aggressively in bringing about Palestinian statehood.

The authors argue that time is of the essence and that the European Union “must not confine itself to the … outlines of the final settlement” and “should collectively recognize the Palestinian State.… There is no more time to lose. Europe must pave the way.” The authors say the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the Madrid peace conference, which was convened in October 1991, would be a good moment to recognize Palestinian independence.

In an earlier interview with the Paris-based Journal du Dimanche, Kouchner said: “The issue currently before us is the building of a reality. France is training Palestinian police and businesses are being created in the West Bank.... It follows that one can envision the proclamation soon of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiating its borders.”

Kouchner added: “If by mid-2011, the political process has not ended the [Israeli] occupation, I would bet that the developed state of Palestinian infrastructure and institutions will be such that the pressure will force Israel to give up its occupation.”

Moratinos has said that Madrid sees the foundation of a Palestinian state as one of its main priorities under its six-month leadership of the EU. “We in the international community are all defending the two-state solution. Why should we wait for a Palestinian state? We have Israel as a state, we want its neighbour, the Palestinians, to have the same status,” Moratinos said. “My idea, and my dream, and my engagement, is to work for having in 2010, finally, a Palestinian state that could live in peace and security with Israel,” he said.

It remains to be seen how Spain’s current EU presidency will affect the EU’s relations with Israel. The government of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (as well as the previous EU rotating presidency, which was held by Sweden) has often raised eyebrows over its consistently antagonistic approach toward the Jewish state.

During the Swedish EU presidency (July 1, 2009 to December 31, 2009) the EU adopted a resolution that for the first time explicitly called for Jerusalem to become the future capital of both a Palestinian state and Israel. Backing away only slightly from a more controversial Swedish proposal to officially call for the division of Jerusalem, the EU declared: “If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.

” The original proposal drafted by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, well-known for his pro-Palestinian leanings, had called for the creation of a “State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.” That proposal had the backing of the Zapatero government. Israeli officials, angry over EU efforts to prejudge the outcome of issues reserved for permanent status negotiations, persuaded French diplomats to remove the offending text, as well as other references to a Palestinian state that would comprise “the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.”

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as part of their future state. The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction in the two areas before peace talks can resume. But Israel has always maintained that Jerusalem will remain its undivided capital, regardless of any future peace settlement with the Palestinians. This has been the declared policy of all Israeli governments, both left and right.

In July 2009, then-EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana gave a speech to the Ditchley Foundation in London in which he said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority should be given a deadline by which to conclude negotiations for a two-state solution. If a final status agreement is not reached by that time, Solana recommended that one be imposed by the United Nations, whether Israel agrees to it or not.

“After a fixed deadline, a UN Security Council resolution should proclaim the adoption of the two-state solution,” Solana said. “It would accept the Palestinian state as a full member of the UN, and set a calendar for implementation. It would mandate the resolution of other remaining territorial disputes and legitimize the end of claims.”

Solana added that the UN-imposed two-state solution should include resolution of issues such as control over Jerusalem, as well as border definitions, security arrangements and the “right of return” by millions of foreign descendants of Arab refugees who abandoned their homes during the 1948 war.

In March 2010, the new EU foreign policy chief, Lady Catherine Ashton, used a visit to Gaza to increase EU pressure on Israel. “Recent Israeli decisions to build new housing units in East Jerusalem have endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks,” she said. She also criticized the three-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip and the recent Israeli decision to include Islamic religious sites in occupied territories on a list of Israeli heritage sites, describing both moves as “counter-productive.” Ashton also said the EU is ready to provide the Palestinians with more money.

Meanwhile, a group of British lawmakers have asked the government to halt arms sales to Israel after a report published by the House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls stated: “It is regrettable that arms exports to Israel were almost certainly used by Israel during Operation Cast Lead.” The report also says that arms exports to Israel should never be used in the “occupied Palestinian territories, as this violates the policy of the United Kingdom.”

Anglo-Israeli relations hit a new low in March after the British government expelled an Israeli diplomat over the use of forged UK passports in the January killing of a Hamas official in a hotel in Dubai. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Israel’s behaviour was “intolerable.”

Israeli government officials are concerned about the steady deterioration in Israel-EU relations. According to the Tel Aviv-based newspaper Haaretz, Foreign Ministry Director-General Yossi Gal recently held a conference call with seven of Israel’s ambassadors to European capitals. The envoys said they expected European governments to seize on the current crisis in Israel’s relations with the United States and go even further in condemning Israel and promoting diplomatic initiatives detrimental to Israel.

In fact, Israeli officials believe that US President Barack Obama, in pursuing a more antagonistic policy toward Israel, is not only imitating the European approach to the Middle East, but is actually coordinating policy with European governments. According to Haaretz, the White House and State Department have been in contact with Israel’s European allies, including Germany, in an effort to isolate Israel and increase the political pressure on Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But increased American and European pressure on Israel may end up encouraging the Palestinians to toughen their stance and thus undermine the prospects for a negotiated settlement. Indeed, many analysts believe the recent moves by the EU are an effort to pre-empt any possible resumption of Middle East peace talks by helping the Palestinians improve their negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel.

This is already happening. For example, senior officials in Fatah, which governs the West Bank, have recently reversed a negotiations-only approach and have called for increased Palestinian protests against Israel.

In the meantime, the Palestinian Authority is using European money to implement an ambitious program to reform the Palestinian government and security forces, build up Palestinian institutions and develop the economy. The EU is praising the reforms, but Israel suspects the plan to build up the institutions and infrastructure of a viable state may be a precursor to a unilateral declaration of independence.

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