Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS

Brussels/Washington — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that recognising Jerusalem as his country’s capital "makes peace possible", after widespread international criticism of the US decision to do so.

This comes shortly after the US accused the Palestinian Authority of "walking away" from a chance to discuss peace in the Middle East by snubbing Vice-President Mike Pence on an upcoming visit.

US President Donald Trump’s announcement last week has been followed by days of protests and clashes in the Palestinian territories, as well as demonstrations across the Islamic world.

The EU expressed alarm at the decision, which upends seven decades of US policy on the disputed holy city, and the bloc’s foreign ministers are set to urge Netanyahu to resume dialogue with the Palestinians as he meets them over breakfast in Brussels.

The Israeli premier said what Trump had done was to "put facts squarely on the table" by acknowledging Jerusalem had been the capital of the Israeli state for 70 years and of the Jewish people for 3,000 years.

"It doesn’t obviate peace, it makes peace possible, because recognising reality is the substance of peace, it’s the foundation of peace," he said in a statement alongside EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini.

Mogherini, who last week warned the Jerusalem decision could take the situation "backwards to even darker times", restated the EU’s position that a two-state solution with Jerusalem as capital for both Israelis and Palestinians was the only sustainable way to resolve the conflict.

Netanyahu pointed to a new US peace initiative as a possible way forward.

"There is now an effort under way to bring forward a new peace proposal by the American administration. I think we should give peace a chance. I think we should see what is presented and see if we can advance this peace," he said.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been working with a small team to develop a new US proposal to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is not clear what progress he is making.

Netanyahu’s visit to Brussels comes after he met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Sunday. Macron called on him to freeze settlement building and to re-engage with Palestinians.

Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital and previous peace plans have stumbled over debates on whether and how to divide sovereignty or oversee holy sites.

US stance

A top official in Pence’s office said the US vice-president was looking forward to meeting Netanyahu and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he travels to region later this month.

But he appeared to confirm that Pence would not be meeting anyone from Palestinian Authority, which has reacted angrily to last week’s US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

"The president has asked Vice-President Pence to go to the region to reaffirm our commitment to work with partners throughout the Middle East to defeat radicalism that threatens the hopes and dreams of future generations," Jarrod Agen, Pence’s deputy chief of staff, said in a statement.

"The vice-president very much looks forward to traveling to the region to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President al-Sisi.

"It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region."

Agen said the Trump administration nevertheless "remains undeterred in its efforts to help achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians and our peace team remains hard at work putting together a plan".

Speaking earlier on Sunday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the US decision on Jerusalem could hinder the Trump administration’s own push for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Guterres said on CNN that he was pleased that Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner had been meeting with Israelis and Palestinians on a new peace plan after years of stalemate in the process.

"I think that the decision that was taken on Wednesday risks to compromise this effort," he said.

Macron called on Netanyahu on Sunday to freeze settlement building and to re-engage with Palestinians following widespread protests over the US move.

Speaking alongside Netanyahu on Sunday, Macron again condemned the decision as "contrary to international law and dangerous for the peace process".

"I urged the prime minister to show courage in his dealings with the Palestinians to get us out of the current dead end," Macron said after talks in Paris with the Israeli leader.

"Peace does not depend on the United States alone … it depends on the capacity of the two Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do so," the French leader said.

Before leaving Israel, Netanyahu had taken aim at what he called Europe’s "hypocrisy", for condemning Trump’s statement, but not "the rockets fired at Israel or the terrible incitement against it".

Pointedly, Macron began his pre-prepared remarks with a clear condemnation, "with the greatest of clarity, of all forms of attacks in the last hours and days against Israel".

Despite the obvious differences between the 39-year-old French leader and the Israeli hardliner, there were also attempts to show they had developed a good early working relationship and held common views.

"Does this mean Emmanuel Macron and me agree on everything? No, not all of it, but we’re working it," Netanyahu said at one point, joking later: "The lunch in the Elysee is superb, the conversation is superb too."

The two countries are keen to reset ties after often difficult exchanges under former president Francois Hollande.

AFP

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