France, EU raise cautions about U.S. peace plan for Middle East, as U.K. welcomes it

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.

French say that any agreement must 'conform with international law'

A new housing project sign stands Tuesday in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ari'el. The population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank increased at a rate above the growth of Israel's overall population, a settler group said Tuesday (Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press)

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.

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 UN resolutions and internationally agreed parameters."

But Britain, which has played a key role in the Middle East since the First World War, 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.

'Last night history knocked on the door'

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 three 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.

"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 UN 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."

Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, right, is shown with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Nov. 24, 2019. Bennett is eager for Israel to expand its West Bank settlements. (Atef Safadi/Reuters)

Israel's hawkish defence minister on Wednesday called for Israel to establish sovereignty over nearly a third of the occupied West Bank.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still outside Israel after attending the plan's presentation in Washington, Naftali Bennett outlined his hardline interpretation of what the White House had offered Israel.

"Last night history knocked on the door of our home and gave us a one-time opportunity to apply Israeli law on all settlements in Samaria, Judea, the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea," Bennett said, using the Hebrew names for areas in the West Bank occupied by Israel.

He had ordered a team to be set up to apply Israeli law and sovereignty on all Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

It was unclear whether the present caretaker government had a legal mandate to carry out such a move after two inconclusive elections in 2019. Bennett is vying with Netanyahu for support from right-wing voters in an election set for March 2.

Watch: Trump unveils U.S. plan to mixed reaction

Palestinians dismiss Trump’s Middle East peace plan as ‘nonsense’

2 years ago
Duration 2:59
U.S. President Donald Trump praised his two-state Middle East peace plan as a 'win-win' opportunity for both Israel and the Palestinians; Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the proposal as 'nonsense.' 2:59

Netanyahu on Wednesday reiterated his support for Trump's plan, telling Fox television: "We will not contradict in any way the outline that the president put forward."

But Amir Peretz, head of Israel's leftist Labour Party, said no unilateral plan could work. "Now more than ever it's clear that we need a diplomatic compass," he said.

EU sanctions would require unanimity

Israel's military issued a statement saying that based on an assessment of the situation, it was reinforcing divisions for the West Bank and Gaza with additional combat troops.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Wednesday that Trump's team had simply "copied and pasted" the blueprint that Netanyahu and Israeli settler leaders wanted to see implemented.

"It's about annexation, it's about apartheid," he said in Ramallah in the West Bank. "Moving to the de jure annexation of settlements is something that was given the green light yesterday."

Palestinians continued Wednesday to protest the Middle East peace plan announced by U.S. President Donald Trump, including in Bethlehem, West Bank. (Mahmoud Illean/The Associated Press)

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.

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 defence industries.

Read Canada's statement after U.S. unveiled its proposal: