Reynders goes to the Middle East at a bad time…

  • The Belgian minister went to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
  • That process is making no headway.

JERUSALEM

BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

Didier Reynders’ three-day visit to Israel and to the Palestinian territories, which ended today, drew more interest in Belgium than in the countries he visited. Belgium’s chief diplomat, who had to postpone his visit twice because of Belgium’s political situation and the Israeli legislative elections, went to the region at the same time that Israel began an international campaign aimed at preventing an agreement that would lift sanctions against Iran. In addition significant differences emerged on this issue between Jerusalem and Washington, causing the rest of the news to take second place.

For the past several days, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Secretary of State John Kerry have been exchanging unfriendly statements via the press. Jerusalem publicly criticized Washington’s “weakness” while the United States accused their allies of “speaking too quickly.” It is a new development in the diplomatic history between the two countries.

The Iranian situation has stirred up so much Israeli sentiment that it risks turning into an armed conflict. Monday, Netanyahu again let it be known that his country could act alone “if its vital interests are threatened.” The army’s chief commander Benny Gantz vigorously repeated that his country is “ready for any eventuality” and the former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy said, “the military solution has not been abandoned.”

The same day and at almost same moment, Didier Reynders was meeting Israeli president Shimon Peres, then Benjamin Netanyahu. They were obviously preoccupied with Iran but the chief Belgian diplomat was there to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He did that at length with justice minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

“While there are still important differences, I sense a willingness to succeed on both sides. They are aware that they will not come to agreement within the next few months, and it is becoming more and more difficult to imagine a solution to the conflict based on two states living side by side,” the Belgian minister said. He continued: “Of course, Belgium doesn’t want to give lessons, but if we can help in any way, formally or informally, we are ready.”

When he met with Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday Didier Reynders urged continuing negotiations. He also asked the Palestinian Authority (PA) not act unilaterally to interrupt those negotiations. The PA has been tempted to act in response to recent announcements of thousands of new buildings in the settlements located in territories claimed by the Palestinians. The PA president reassured Reynders and the Israeli negotiators, but the talks are in a critical stage and the parties agree on almost nothing.

A conference in Brussels?

On both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, Reynders tried to promote his plan to organize an economic conference in Brussels to bring together international institutions and private groups. “We first must have evidence of progress in the bilateral discussions. Once this is done, we can invite companies on both sides of the fence to meet in Brussels to facilitate trade and regional integration.” 

In this context, Didier Reynders met with several economic partners during his visit to the region. They included the leaders of “Breaking the Impass,” an organization that brings together approximately three hundred Israeli and Palestinian business people who want to promote peace via business exchanges.

The most optimistic among them originally told the Belgian foreign affairs minister that a “Brussels Conference” that includes international organizations could be organized by the end of this year. However, they now think that it would not be possible before April 2014, and it may never happen if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process falls apart before then.

SERGE DUMONT

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