Diplomats descend on Israel-Palestinian region to work for peace

More European nations are seeking an active role in moving toward establishment of a Palestinian state

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government in place, top diplomats are beginning to converge on the region to engage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to determine what, if anything, could push the long-stalled peace process forward.

Years of American brokerage have failed to coax the Israelis and Palestinians into a two-state solution agreement. With the collapse more than a year ago of the most recent U.S.-led effort and Washington's apparent disinclination to invest energy with Netanyahu and its being distracted elsewhere, others in the international community — particularly Europe — are increasingly seeking an active role in resolving the diplomatic quagmire and moving toward establishment of a Palestinian state.

Last week, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini visited the region, as did the foreign minister of Norway. Next up are the foreign ministers of Germany, Canada and New Zealand, government officials from Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, and the president of Cyprus.

The latest to announce an upcoming visit is French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who will travel to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt this month.

Why the diplomatic airlift? Here's where things stand:

Frustrated by years on the bilateral treadmill while Israel continues to allow new construction in settlements on the West Bank, the Palestinians have turned to international bodies such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court for leverage. For its part, Israel demands that the Palestinians cease unilateral moves before it would consider resuming the peace talks.

Netanyahu's new government, installed May 14, appears to be even more hawkish than the previous one. Most of the current ministers support settlements, oppose territorial compromise with the Palestinians and are outspoken critics of a two-state solution. Netanyahu does not rule out a demilitarized Palestinian state. But he contends that regional turbulence as well as the Palestinians' international diplomatic offensive — including demands for an investigation of Israel on suspicion of war crimes — render this option impossible at this point.

Empathy with the Palestinians and increasing impatience with Israel's West Bank policies have deepened criticism against Israel across Europe, where more countries are recognizing Palestinian statehood.

Recently, the foreign ministers of 16 European nations sent a letter to the EU's Mogherini urging her to move to label goods originating in West Bank settlements, illegal under international law. The EU is under pressure from many of its members to take steps to restrict business and cooperation with the Israeli settlements.

Calls for various boycotts are on the increase. Israel rejects these as attempts to undermine its international standing with other nations. Besides potential economic harm, Israel is particularly concerned about academic boycotts. In a meeting with the heads of Israeli universities Thursday, President Reuven Rivlin called threats to shun Israel's academic institutions a "first-rate strategic threat."

In recent meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mogherini appeared to be gauging Netanyahu's commitment to a negotiated solution with the Palestinians and whether the Palestinians might back down from their diplomatic moves and return to bilateral talks.

According to Israeli media, Netanyahu proposed to Mogherini that Israel begin drawing the borders of settlement blocks it seeks to retain and annex in a future agreement with the Palestinians, something Israel has consistently refused to do in the past. The Palestinians promptly dismissed the proposal as a nonstarter, saying all settlements are illegal, but Netanyahu's move indicates Israel is aware of the need to counter mounting political pressure. A separate statement from Netanyahu on Thursday generally backing parts of the Arab peace initiative, after long years of silence, also seemed to suggest an awareness.

While Israel was temporarily preoccupied with the threat of getting suspended from FIFA, the international soccer organization, it received a reminder of the next big challenge in the international arena: a looming French proposal for a U.N. Security Council resolution fixing a timetable for negotiations with the Palestinians.

On Thursday, Fabius announced plans to travel to the region and meet with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders to revive the peace process and gain support for his country's diplomatic initiative. France reportedly intends to submit the Security Council resolution some time after June 30, the deadline for concluding nuclear talks between six world powers and Iran.

The proposal calls for two states along pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps and for Jerusalem to be the capital of both. A similar Security Council bid this year failed.

Reportedly, France intends to recognize Palestinian statehood if the negotiations do not bear fruit during an 18-month period.

Israel has repeatedly rejected what it calls attempts by foreign governments to dictate the outcome of negotiations with the Palestinians, stressing that any solution will be the result of direct negotiations only.

Israelis aren't alone in being leery of the international interest in getting involved. At a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) vowed to "push back" if the U.N. tried to take over the peace process and said France would not be allowed to use the Security Council to predetermine the outcome of the process.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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