By HERB KEINON
Former Italian foreign minister predicts Palestinian unity deal will fail without Hamas recognition of Israel.
Regardless of whether Israel does or does not build in the settlements, it clearly needs to talk much less about the whole issue, Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister until last week, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday.
Frattini, who will be coming to Israel on Wednesday for a day’s conference in Tel Aviv on Israel, Russia and the EU sponsored by the Russian Institute of International Integration Studies and the Israeli Association of Russian Language Journalists, said the current diplomatic process suffered from a breakdown of trust exacerbated on the Israeli side by bombastic statements about settlements and on the Palestinian side by talk of a Fatah reconciliation with a non-repentant Hamas.
“When you see the multiplication of settlements, or better – decision on settlements without the concrete building of settlements – you run the risk of emphasizing the policy without having immediate results for settlers.That is, frankly speaking, a bit counterproductive to the interest of Israelis themselves,” Frattini said during a phone interview from Rome.
Indeed, while the Netanyahu government has spoken a great deal about settlement construction, the actual number of housing starts in the settlements is at its lowest point in more than a decade. Frattini, whose term as Italy’s foreign minister ended Friday when Silvio Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister, was not – unlike some of his European colleagues – calling for a resumption of an Israeli settlement freeze. He acknowledged that the construction freeze Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced in 2009 for 10 months did not bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
However, Israel needs to change its policy, he said.
“What is needed is a decision to have a different approach on public statements, on making public announcements, emphasizing on TV that you want to multiply [settlement construction] tomorrow or the day after. All these public statements are frankly counterproductive because these are not followed by implementation in many cases – so settlers are not satisfied, because they don’t see the buildings, and Palestinians are not satisfied, because they look at what the government is emphasizing.”
Emphatic statements on the settlements, Frattini said, deteriorated the reciprocal trust between the two parties.
“And when there is mistrust between the two negotiating parties, how is it possible to resume negotiations? This is a point that everybody has to take into consideration,” he added.
By no means, however, does Frattini imply that the whole burden is on Israel’s shoulders.
The Palestinians, as well, must build up Israel’s trust, he said, and one way to do that is to scuttle Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks, unless Hamas clearly and unequivocally recognizes Israel’s right to exist.
The Palestinians, said Frattini, need to make it clear to Israel that they do not see Israel’s security as negotiable. Trying to reconcile with a Hamas that retained destruction of Israel as a principle of its charter sends the opposite message, he said.
Frattini, who was one of those responsible in 2003 for getting the EU to recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization, said that even if Fatah and Hamas reconciliation talks later this week are successful, the EU will not change its attitude toward the organization unless there was a clear recognition of Israel.
“If there will be a clear formal public recognition that Israel has the right not only to exist but to live in security and peace, at that time we could consider a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation a possibility without having political consequences,” he said.
But if the reconciliation takes place without those guarantees, he indicated, there would be practical consequences from the EU, and not only from Israel and the US.
Frattini, who said he knew Abbas “quite well,” predicted that the Palestinian leader would be “wise enough” to avoid reconciliation without having guarantees that Hamas will change its tune on Israel. The lack of those guarantees, he said, is what had doomed reconciliation attempts up until now.
“They need broad international support. They know full well that relations with the US have deteriorated progressively,” Frattini said of the Palestinian Authority.
“I think President Abbas is a wise man and will not run the risk of putting the PA into a difficult situation by the de facto acceptance of ministers making public appeals for the destruction of Israel.”
Regarding Italian-Israeli ties, which flourished under Berlusconi, Frattinisaid those ties would not be harmed as a result of Berlusconi’s exit and the recent appointment of Mario Monti as Italy’s new prime minister.
“During our stay in the government, the close relationship between Israel and Italy was built with the broad support of the ruling majority, but also with an important part of the opposition. The idea of the Berlusconiled government was to build a relationship that was a lasting one, not one that will change,” he said.
One Israeli diplomat corroborated this, saying that Italy was the rare European country where there was strong support for Israel on the left side of the political spectrum, as well as on the right.
Frattini said Monti had a “very good and deep knowledge about international issues,” and pointed out that his own successor as foreign minister, GiulioTerzi di Sant’Agata, was a man he himself handpicked in 2002 as Italy’s ambassador to Tel Aviv.
Terzi, he said, knew Israel “quite well. He followed very closely my instructions as foreign minister to him, and in his capacity as foreign minister, it is certain he will continue to follow those guidelines and principles.”
Frattini also said that since strong supporters of Israel, such as himself, would not be disappearing in the parliament, but rather were “staying in the majority supporting the current government,” they would help ensure that Italy’s commitment to Israel and the level of the bilateral ties remain the same.
Frattini said he was invited to take part in Thursday’s conference on Israeli-Russian-EU relations at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv because he was considered “one of the closest friends of Israel, and one of the closes friends of Russia.”
The conference will include both Knesset members and members of the Russian State Duma.
Regarding Moscow’s current interests in the Middle East, Frattinisaid Russia “has a very important interest in not losing ground in the Middle East” during the current upheaval in the region. He said this was something that has been made more difficult considering the problems facing Syria, which has “historically and traditionally” been Moscow’s primary ally in the region.
“Russia is sincerely interested in keeping its position in the Middle East at a moment when it sees the position of its traditional allies losing credibility, losing ground and maybe losing power,” Frattini said. He added that, as a result of wanting to be a “player”in the Middle East, Moscow understood that it “has to have a more open discussion with Israel.”
“Until three or four years ago, when we used to talk about the Russian position in the Middle East, we used to talks about Russia as completely unbalanced, against the state of Israel and pro-Arab. They are now showing a new awareness that the more they will be able to show a balanced role, the more they will be a stronger player.”
He said that Russia, by virtue of the good relations it has with the Gulf States, could play an important role in the diplomatic process by urging those countries to take steps to normalize relations with Israel – in parallel to a resumption of ties between Israel and the Palestinians – as a way of “encouraging [and] fostering Israel to make concessions.”
Frattini dismissed the idea that the expected election of Vladimir Putin as president next year will lead to a deterioration of ties between the EU and Russia, saying that he believed there would be a continuity of Russian policy, and that there was a common European-Russian interest in cooperating across a variety of fields – from energy to nuclear security – and in how to approach regional crisis throughout the world.
He said his hope was that as Russia begins to be seen as a major world power, and not only a dominant regional one, it would take a firmer role against Iran’s nuclear program.
In the meantime, Russia and China are viewed as the two players preventing the UN Security Council from adopting the stiff type of sanctions against Iran that were taken Monday by the US, Canada and Britain.