January 29, 2020 / 3:32 PM / 22 days ago

Gaps emerge between Britain and EU over Trump Middle East plan

LONDON (Reuters) - Days before it leaves the European Union, Britain put itself at odds with European allies on Wednesday in warmly welcoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan while France and the wider EU warned that it must respect international law.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump departs after delivering joint remarks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a new Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The plan envisages a Palestinian state but demilitarized and with borders drawn to meet Israel’s security needs. It accords U.S. recognition of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that most of the world regards as illegal.

The French Foreign Ministry welcomed the fact the Trump administration was putting forward ideas to resolve the conflict and said it would study the 181-page plan closely, but added that any agreement must “conform with international law”.

That line was reiterated by the European Commission, which said the proposals needed to respect “all relevant U.N. resolutions and internationally agreed parameters”.

But Britain, which has played a key role in the Middle East since World War One, offered no words of caution, instead welcoming the plan as a “serious proposal” and encouraging both sides to give it “genuine and fair consideration”.

The gap could signal a split on a critical area of foreign policy just before Britain formally leaves the EU on Friday.

The French reference to international law is important given that Israeli government officials have interpreted Trump’s plan as giving them a green light to move quickly in applying Israeli sovereignty over nearly a third of the West Bank by formally annexing the territory to Israel.

Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett wants to advance the issue immediately, with a fellow minister calling for a vote in the Israeli parliament in the coming days, despite the government only having a caretaker status.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East war and built up a network of Jewish settlements across the territory, where more than 500,000 of its citizens now live, amidst around 3 million Palestinians.

The settlements are widely regarded as contravening international law, a position Israel disputes. Annexing the territory would be a clear breach of international law, analysts say, and violate the United Nations founding charter.

POST-BREXIT SHIFT?

“The European Union has been clear that it cannot support a U.S. plan that runs counter to internationally agreed parameters, international law, and past U.N. Security Council resolutions,” said Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The U.S. plan is at odds with all these things.”

At a time when the International Criminal Court has already opened an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories, Israel could face sharp and wide condemnation if it acts to annex territory.

“The EU and its member states must warn that such action will have grave consequences,” said Lovatt, suggesting that the bloc might decide to give more serious backing to the ICC investigation if Israel formally seizes parts of the West Bank.

The problem for EU member states is that they have limited leverage over Israel, despite the historical role France and Britain have played in the region.

A general view picture shows the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City in the background and part of the Israeli barrier in the foreground, as seen from the Palestinian town of Abu Dis in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, east of Jerusalem January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

If the EU were to decide to impose sanctions or other measures against Israel over annexation, it would require unanimous approval of all 27 member states after Britain’s departure. Similar steps have failed in the past as Hungary and other smaller member states have sided with Israel.

Britain, too, is reluctant to set itself at odds with Israel as it looks for trade deals after Brexit, including closer ties with Israel’s leading high-tech and defense industries.

Moreover, some analysts see Britain shifting closer to U.S. foreign policy positions after Brexit, in part to help smooth the way for a major free trade deal with the United States.

Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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