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Why Europe Is Wrong About Jerusalem

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On Wednesday at the UN, the representatives of Britain, France, Germany and Portugal expressed their strong opposition to further announcements by the Israeli government of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem. They reiterated particular concerns, expressed in a statement by EU foreign ministers last week, about plans to build in E1, a sensitive area of 12 square kilometres extending into the West Bank just east of Jerusalem.

European governments are right when they say that neither side should take unilateral acts which could undermine the viability of a two-state agreement. The Palestinians should refrain from trying to impose their version of a solution through UN resolutions, and Israel should refrain from trying to impose theirs by building in new areas of the territory under dispute.

European foreign ministers said as much in last week's statement, emphasising that a solution to the conflict, including on borders, must be agreed by the parties.

But they also said something else which undermines their own logic. Not only has Europe expressed dismay at building in E1, but it has also been rehearsing the Palestinian argument that building in E1 would be 'jeopardizing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.'

The Palestinians have good reason for wanting E1 as part of their future state, with valid concerns that Israeli construction there might inhibit their access to East Jerusalem and contiguity between Ramallah and Bethlehem.

But successive Israeli governments have also had a position on E1. Israel wants to control the area because without it the large settlement of Maale Adumim, which sits on strategic high ground to the east of Jerusalem, will be vulnerable to being cut off from the rest of Jerusalem. Israeli negotiators in 2008 offered the Palestinians solutions that would link the areas dissected by E1 with a road that would serve as a corridor, providing contiguity between Palestinian East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem.

UN Security Council resolution 242 affirms the rights of all states in the region to secure and defensible borders, including Israel, and many Israelis see E1 as integral to Israel's defensible borders.

When both sides have a claim to this small but strategically significant piece of land, the way to resolve the issue should be through negotiations between the parties, just as the EU is calling for. Why then has the EU prejudged the outcome of those negotiations by taking the Palestinian side of the argument? If Israel is wrong to prejudge the fate of E1 by planning to build on it, how can it be right for the EU to prejudge its fate by adopting the Palestinian position?

Appearing to automatically take the Palestinian line undermines the EU's aspiration to play a more significant political role in the peace process. Israeli governments will be less likely to pay attention to the Europeans if they see them as champions of the Palestinians, rather than champions of a deal which will address the needs of both sides.

What's more, by adopting the Palestinian position so wholeheartedly, the EU could harm the prospect of a future deal by binding the Palestinian's hands in negotiations. Reaching a deal in the long run will require difficult concessions and maximum flexibility and creativity from both sides. The international community prejudging the details in favour of one side or the other will, if anything, reduce the scope for compromise.