Palestinian plans to take a statehood bid to the UN in September could spark bloodshed, warns Israel's ambassador to Brussels, Ran Curiel. Instead, he argues, the EU should stand by the Quartet's principles and so help Israel to negotiate a Palestinian state.
Ran Curiel has been Israel's ambassador to the European Union since May 2007. Before his posting in Brussels, he was a deputy director-general in Israel's foreign ministry, in charge of European affairs. A professional diplomat since 1975, he has also represented Israel in Washington, D.C., Buenos Aires and as ambassador to Greece from 1996 to 2001.
He was speaking to EurActiv's Arthur Neslen.
You sent EurActiv a statement saying that Catherine Ashton had told an AHLC (Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee) meeting that the planned second Gaza flotilla was a 'provocation'. Do you think the EU has got the balance right in what it is saying in public about this?
Most governments in Europe don't think this flotilla should happen. They see it as an unnecessary provocation in view of the situation on the ground, and they accept Israel's right to have a blockade under international law to prevent smuggling of weapons. Just recently we intercepted a German ship, the Victoria, in which the captain didn't even know what he was carrying – quite sophisticated weapons from Syria to Hamas. So there is a situation on the ground.
One of the main organisers of this flotilla, the IHH Turkish Relief Fund, was designated in Holland as a terrorist organisation [for allegedly raising funds for Hamas] and shut down last week, as it was in Germany and the USA. I'm sure there are good people among the organisers but their main aim is political provocation.
Are you satisfied with the messages that you're getting from the EU in public and private?
The message that we're getting is clear from Ashton herself. Of course we would like to see it being said publicly, as it was said by other dignitaries and officials of the EU. But in private, the reading we are hearing is similar to ours.
I'm not sure that the EU is happy about what's going on in Gaza and there is certainly room for economic improvement. But you have also the overall situation in the Mideast. I think flotillas are needed more in Benghazi or maybe Tripoli and Syria, rather than Gaza.
Some 80% of Gaza's population are surviving on food aid, and I saw for myself in 2009 how children were scrabbling around in dustbins for scraps of food. It is not the kind of place in which anyone would want to bring up their children.
Yes, well, there are many Gazas all over the world. Israel did not create Gaza. It is under the full control of Hamas and it is up to them to develop the conditions for it to flourish. Israel left Gaza completely. The hope then was that it would become a Hong Kong but it remains as it is. I think that there is no problem these days in terms of the ability to get assistance and goods.
A different story is about the way that Gaza is being ruled, and while Hamas is still shooting indiscriminately at Israeli citizens on a daily basis, it is very hard for Israel to take responsibility for what's happening within it. We left Gaza completely and we let them rule their lives.
You may have left it but they can't. There are 1.5 million people there, stuck on a strip of land 7km by 22km, in which 95% of private sector industry has collapsed because of the closure. Irrespective of Hamas, which has been strengthened by the isolation, people there surely have no power to rule their lives?
We cannot change demography or geography. We can try to improve conditions. This is all we can do, but when you have a regime in Gaza whose prime minister said what he did about the killing of Bin Laden, it is quite difficult to find ways to cooperate in order to improve things.
I think Israel has every interest in seeing its neighbours, including Gaza, in a much better situation. I think that the huge improvement in the West Bank is testament to that. You have to have neighbours that accept your right to exist.
Are you satisfied with the positioning that the EU has taken on the Fatah-Hamas unity deal?
From what I understand, the EU is still looking at the situation. We expect the EU to stand on the same principles that it helped to put in the statement of 2006; meaning that any cooperation with any Palestinian government is conditioned on their relinquishing of terror, accepting the right of Israel to exist, and honouring or accepting previous agreements, in order not to start from scratch.
We expect the EU and other Quartet members to stand by these principles. There is a lot of talk in this town about shared values and I think these principles are part of these shared values. These are, in the Brussels jargon, the 'acquis' for any peace process.
At the recent unity deal speeches, the Palestinians said that the Hamas leader, Khalid Meshaal, had effectively abandoned violence in Gaza and offered to submit other forms of struggle to national consensus. As the new government would – uniquely, they say – be able to implement a peace deal, and would not include Hamas anyway, why not talk to it?
I see a lot of acrobatics. The principles are simple, short and clear: renounce violence, accept the right of Israel to exist, and abide by the previous agreements. What's so difficult about saying it clearly?
If it is not said clearly then it raises questions that no acrobatics can correct. If you have a government composed of elements that call for the destruction of the state of Israel, what are we going to talk to them about? We expect that the EU and the rest of the international community will abide by these simple principles elaborated by the Quartet, not by us.
What will happen if, come September, EU member states recognise a Palestinian state at the UN?
You know that diplomats hate to get into hypotheticals but I think that the only way to achieve real reconciliation among Palestinians – and between Israelis and Palestinians – is by negotiations that reflect the situation on the ground. We're not against Palestinian reconciliation so long as it produces a government that can talk about peace.
What steps might Israel take if a Palestinian state is declared or recognised in September?
It opens a lot of options because it goes back on all the 'acquis' of the peace process, which was based on a negotiated agreement, for a huge gamble by the Palestinians which will not necessarily bring them what they want. Unfortunately, one of the alternative possibilities is that the gap between the declarations and reality on the ground might not bring a state but another round of violence.
Are you talking about a reoccupation of the West Bank?
No, I did not mean violence initiated by our side. I'm thinking about the frustration on the Palestinian side. This is what happened after Camp David [in 1997] and Oslo [in 1993]. In both cases we had an eruption of violence. In the Middle East, when you end a peace process, you don't necessarily go back to the status quo ante, unfortunately.
After Oslo, the eruption that most of the world remembers was the assassination of the Israeli premier who signed it, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish extremist.
I'm saying that when a process that was destined to achieve peace failed, we were faced with a round of violence, and one cannot exclude that happening again, but not on Israel's initiative. We have an interest in negotiating a peaceful agreement.
Is a Palestinian state in the Israeli national interest?
I think so. That's why we support a two state solution, and recognise the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. We expect a new Palestinian government to do the same when it comes to Israel.
Are you happy with the noises you're hearing from European leaders on the question of recognising a Palestinian state in September? France says it is extremely positive about the idea and Britain seems to support it. Doesn't the idea have momentum behind it?
I think that if you look thoroughly at the European position right now, it is fully supportive of a negotiated settlement. All the recent EU statements speak only of a state coming "through negotiations". There may be a change in the future but this is not the case right now.
How do you feel about the recent decision by the EU not to put an upgrade in relations with Israel on the agenda?
I think it is a mistake. When you look at EU-Israel relations, I think that engagement is imperative and improving relations to call it an upgrade serves the EU as well as Israel. If the EU wants to be heard more than it is – it has been heard, don't get me wrong – but if it wants to be heard more than it is in Israel, it has to reach a conclusion that it is in the EU's interest to upgrade relations with Israel, because what is upgrading?
If Israel has access to EU programmes and more contacts and cultural and scientific relations, it will take Israeli civil society closer to Europe's. I don't see what's stopping it.
The EU gives hundreds of millions of euros to the PA each year for state-building purposes and, as a stakeholder, maybe they want to see evidence that you're serious about negotiating a Palestinian state before giving you more preferential trade deals?
I can understand the EU interest and wishes but I think that this step is wrong. There are other ways to convey your messages to Israel. The stopping of the upgrade that was focused mainly on development and people-to-people relations is the wrong way to go. I think that you can achieve a better role by engaging and developing relations, and not blocking channels of communication.
Isn't the reality that the peace process has ground to a halt since Israel resumed settlements building and that – in the eyes of the world – Israel does not seem at all bothered by that, not least because any move towards Palestinian statehood would split the current government beyond repair?
Look at the recent declarations this week by some European pleaders who said that making the settlements a precondition was a mistake. We negotiated with Palestinians in the past while settlements were built. They are one of the issues which will be solved with other issues if we reach an agreement.
You cannot at this stage put preconditions to either side. We could have closed the ability to negotiate by raising the demographic issue, or the so-called right of return, as preconditions. The Israeli government was trying to get to the table to negotiate on all outstanding issues – Jerusalem, settlements, security, borders, refugees – and try to reach an agreement.
The government of Netanyahu did something that no other Israeli government had done before. It accepted a 10-month moratorium. The Palestinians did nothing for nine months and then said, ‘What will happen afterwards?' It is clear today that it was used as an excuse not to negotiate by the Palestinians. Unfortunately recent events, including going with Hamas without changing Hamas, point to the Palestinians acting unilaterally, which may produce negative results.
They would say that there's nothing more unilateral than an occupation.
Well how did we get there in the first place? It is not only about the occupation. It is clear today when you look at the Hamas charter. Before '67, there were no settlements and no occupation and the West Bank and Gaza were not under Israeli authority and there was no peace. It is not only what we do to the Palestinians but whether the Arab world and the Palestinians are prepared to reconcile with a Jewish state.
How do settlements increase the prospects for peace?
There were no settlements before '67 and there was no peace. Settlements are part of the process that developed after '67 and can be settled as part of an overall agreement. They cannot be excluded as one element.