Scoop: "Munich Group” makes new Israel-Palestine proposals
A group of Arab and European countries nicknamed “The Munich Group” is lobbying Israeli and Palestinian leaders to commit to a package of confidence-building measures, Israeli and European diplomats tell me.
Why it matters: The initiative from France, Germany, Egypt and Jordan is the only active effort to create some movement in the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
- They're hoping to improve the atmosphere between the Israelis and Palestinians as the Biden administration reviews its policy on the issue.
- But European diplomats say both sides are hesitant to take any steps without the participation of the Biden administration.
Flashback: The initiative began last February when the four countries' foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in an attempt to start a dialogue with the Palestinians after the Trump peace plan was presented.
- The countries later convened to coordinate a response to Israel's annexation plan, which was taken off the table last fall.
- When the group met in Cairo a month ago, they wanted the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers to join them, but COVID-19 restrictions and political sensitivities in Israel made that impossible.
Driving the news: Last week, the ambassadors of the four countries met with the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz, and presented him with possible steps Israel could take.
- They included providing more vaccines to Palestinian medical teams, unfreezing the bank accounts of Palestinian prisoners and transferring the dead bodies of suspected Palestinian terrorists, which are withheld by Israeli security forces.
- The most substantial request was a freeze on all new settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That's always a politically charged issue, but particularly so during an Israeli election campaign.
A similar meeting was held in Ramallah between diplomats from the four countries and Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki.
- They presented him with steps the Palestinians could take, such as enhancing coordination with Israel on COVID-19, reconvening a joint civilian committee that deals with issues in the West Bank and Gaza, and reforming the system of payments the Palestinian Authority makes to prisoners in Israeli prisons, European diplomats say.
What's next: The foreign ministers of the four countries proposed that the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers meet them separately in Paris in early March to discuss the proposals.
- The Israelis rejected most of the proposed steps out of hand. Ushpiz told the ambassadors he was surprised that a forum aimed at reassuring the Palestinians turned into a forum to demand steps from Israel.
- “When I see this evolution, I have to rethink if we are even interested in engaging with this initiative," Ushpiz told the ambassadors, according to European diplomats.
- He also stressed that the initiative can’t exclude the Biden administration. The ambassadors replied that the initiative is intended to help the new U.S. administration.
- According to the European diplomats, al-Malki said he was prepared to attend the meeting in Paris and consider the proposal, while stressing the need to coordinate the initiative with the Biden administration.